Capturing Teenage Girlhood in All Its Awkward Glory

Jenny Gage's documentary "All This Panic" follows a group of New York schoolgirls as they come of age in the city. We talk to Gage and one of its stars.
March 24, 2017, 3:00pm
Sage from "All This Panic." Photo by Tom Betterton

All This Panic is a documentary about teenagers, but not as we know them: There are no worries over underage sexting, no Snapchat streaks, no teen orgies, and little to no parental handwringing. (The movie's biggest arguments between parent and child revolve around prosaic concerns like grocery shopping and looking for a job.)

Filmed over three years, this lyrical and candid portrait of girlhood follows a group of seven high schoolers as they grow up in New York. The usual hallmarks of a coming of age film, like first kisses or Prom, are either alluded to offscreen or not depicted at all. What the movie does show is lots of talk—teenage girls talking about coming out, mental health, school, and relationships—with the kind of frank honesty and adolescent passion that anybody who was once a 16-year-old will recognize.


We talked to director Jenny Gage, and one of the stars of the film, Olivia Cucinotta, who is now 21.

**Read more: A *Teen* Witch's Guide to Staying Alive**

BROADLY: A lot of the film is just the girls vocalizing what they're thinking. How difficult was it for them to open up like that on camera?
Jenny Gage: Time was in our favor. We would revisit questions or themes and some things that they weren't ready to open up with in year one. But year three, they were—and it would go in waves. Sometimes Olivia would be like I'm ready to open up about this and Ginger would be going through something where she felt she wasn't ready. I don't think that if we did this in nine months, we would have gotten the same results.
Olivia Cucinotta: I think we all loved each other, to start. That was clever, finding friends that have chemistry and trust in each other to begin with. I think so much of the movie, so much of what happens between us, so much of it is in body language and looks and tone of voice. That's the way that very close friends communicate.

Dusty and Delia. Photo by Tom Betterton

Were there things that you definitely thought were going into the film that didn't make it?
Gage: We weren't going for the classic moments of coming of age. For sure there were parties and first kisses, but we really wanted it to be in their heads—what are they thinking about, what are they talking about? We wanted to stay away from prom. Although I would have like to have gone.
Cucinotta: Everyone went to prom. I was the only one who had a date for prom.
Gage: I did feel [feel this] less with Olivia, but definitely more with all the girls—because we've all seen those movies so many times—they occasionally had preconceived notions of what we wanted to hear. But it ended up being the inbetween moments that were the most compelling.

Olivia, the film documents you coming out—is it weird that such a pivotal moment of your life has been captured on camera?
Cucinotta: I don't think of it so much as captured on camera, but as a conversation that I really needed to have [that] was happening around people that I trusted. When I was a teenager, Jenny and Tom were the first adults who talked to me like I was also an adult and wanted to hear what I wanted to say. The fact that Jenny and Tom and a very dear dear friend of mine, Lena, who I've been friends with since we were nerds in sixth grade, were some of the first people I talked about this with—it kind of makes sense to me. I feel lucky to be able to share that moment with other people who are maybe looking for that own moment in their own lives.

Olivia. Photo by Jenny Gage and Tom Betterton

Jenny, where do you think your approach comes from? Lots of teenagers don't have the experience of being treated like adults.
Gage: I was a teenage girl once and I think that it's a really magical time in your life, it's super confusing and awkward and fraught. But there's so much potential and you have so much time on your hands to think about who you are, who you want to be, what you are. But it seemed so natural to make a movie about these girls specifically. They had so many interesting things to say and they were hilarious.

How did you whittle it all down to the length that it is now? How many hours of footage did you shoot?
Cucinotta: A lot [with me], but not as much as with the other girls. I ran away from the movie around 17. Going to college, I was like, Clean slate. I was also just terrified about like preserving my high school self in a documentary forever. I told them I couldn't do it anymore, and that changed when they showed me a clip of the movie. I saw just how delicately they handled my life, and I showed it to some friends and their general concensus was: This is something that would have made me feel less alone had I seen it when I was 16. I saw that and was like, okay. Just because I was having a hard time doesn't mean that it's not worthwhile.
Gage: That was definitely a hard moment for us. It's really important that all of the girls are positive about the film. Each girl in their own way had a freakout moment. The thing is, I always understood. I just totally can understand why that would be really scary.

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Jenny, do you think that these girls are very different from what you were like growing up?
Gage: I don't know if they're that different. But I think that they have other support that I probably didn't have growing up at that age. The last few years [there has been this] movement of young women to support each other and outlets like Rookie really pushing girls' stories forward has been an awesome.
Cucinotta: I guess there is a much stronger movement, especially for young girls, to be told that their voice and opinion matters. I like to think we all are trying to work within the system, to break it, to change it. I feel like much more politically active that I was when I was 16. I think that has happened with the other girls in the movie, too.

What strikes me about the movie is that all the things that adults are scared about, like sexting or whatever, don't appear in film at all. You could show this to someone who grew up in the 80s like me and it's still totally relatable.
Gage: For us as filmmakers, that wasn't what the film was about. Clearly they are teenagers, absolutely they are doing that, but we really wanted it to be about how they were connecting and relating to each other in the outside world.
Cucinotta: I don't think our cell phones have fundamentally changed how we grow up, and I feel like the things that we struggle with in the film are so internal. They maybe manifest in the way we relate with others but they're constantly internal issues about how it feels to grow up, and that can never happen outside of your own head.

Looking back on it now, have you learned things about yourself that you didn't expect to learn from the film?
Cucinotta: I don't think so. I've always known my friends as teenage girls to be thoughtful, smart, funny, beautiful people. I think that if you ask any young person that, they'll see that in their friends, as well. It's just when you try to convince other people that these young people aren't just obsessed with themselves, that there actually is thought and struggle and humor going on behind all these people, that's a little harder. I think that's what's so cool about this film, it shows my friends how I see them. Other people can fall in love with my friends like how I have.

All This Panic is in cinemas and on demand from today.