Filmed over the course of three years, All This Panic documents the real lives of seven New York City girls as they navigate the turbulent road to maturity.
Each facing different hurdles in their lives, the film – by photographers Jenny Gage and Tom Betterton – offers intimate access to the private worlds of these young women. By the film's end we've witnessed them laugh, cry and savour their first tastes of adulthood. And with a lean running time of just 79 minutes, All This Panic flickers by fast, the seasons measurable by the girls' changing hairstyles and evolving attitudes.
Distinct personalities shine through: Lena's calm resilience in the face of family chaos; Sage's whipsmart observations on feminism and race; Olivia's tentative – then bold – coming out; and Ginger's shedding of the naivety that's been holding her back.
The usual teen topics of sex and drugs are explored, but the film is never salacious. Instead, it's a vibrant and candid group portrait that offers up a refreshing, dynamic image of modern girlhood. Ginger's dad tells her part-way through the film that "the whole point of growing older is that you eventually find out what's fake about you and what's real, and hopefully move on with more of the real". Just like its subjects, All this Panic is a film that strives for authenticity, and finds it. I spoke to Jenny Gage about the experience of making it.
VICE: So how did the project begin and what drew you to those girls in particular?
Jenny Gage: I've always – in any sort of art form that I've been doing – been interested in that period in a girl's life. It's a time when they're thinking about things very deeply; thinking about who they are, who they want to become. Right when I'd had my daughter, Ginger and Dusty, the two main girls in the film, moved down the street from us. So I would see them walking to school and I'd be thinking, 'What's different now from when I was a teenage girl, and from when my daughter will be a teenage girl?' I knew their parents, so I asked if Tom and I could follow them around with a camera. Really, we didn't have any idea what it would turn into. I was just interested in what the girls thought about, what they talked about and what they were experiencing.
Did it reveal to you any preconceived notions you had about teenagers?
One thing that was interesting was how similar, actually, being a teenager is. There are all the same issues. The first day I met them they said, "Meet us at the steps of Columbus Circle, we're going to the mall." So I met them at the shops at the Time Warner Building and they did all the same stuff; gathering their money so they could buy one muffin to split six ways, trying all the free products at Sephora and then getting kicked out because they'd spent too much time there. I was like, 'Oh, I did all this stuff.' Obviously they have social media, which is so different now, and they spent a lot of time on their phones, but do they really spend more time on their phones than grown-ups do? They use it differently, but I think people would be surprised, because it's still about personal connection. They absolutely use social media, but they weren't obsessed with it.
How did you develop trust with the girls?
We first started filming Ginger and Dusty, and we really did follow their circle of friends, so once you're accepted by one family it's easier for the next family to join in. But it took a while – we were with them for three years. Also, it was a very small crew. It was myself and Tom. That was it; there was never anyone else in the room with them.
I'd imagine it would be very scary to open up to a whole crew of people.
I think it would feel more like you were making a film. For us, it needed to feel diaristic, and I think that helped them feel comfortable exposing themselves. Sage, when she was asked during a Q&A about the relationship between us, was like, "I just saw them as my weird white aunt and uncle." I think it's really nice for teenagers to have somebody like that – that you can open up to and not judge you.
Yeah, you're less scared that they're gonna tell you off, like a parent might. You must have had to be very reactive and spontaneous. Was there anything you set out to do, or were you just going with the flow?
We definitely had to be reactive. Tom and I laugh that basically we spent three years running behind New York City kids – like, literally: they walk so fast! My thesis was to listen to these girls – really listen to what they have to say, and give them the platform to say it. What surprised me was that their stories had an arc, because of the time that we were following them. They changed, stories ended, stories began and so one thing we were trying to figure out was when we should stop filming. Tom went out with Lena – it's the last scene in the movie – and Lena is about to embark on a cross-country trip. It was 3AM and she did this amazing monologue on the way to the bus station about what it's like to grow up, reflecting back on her younger self. When he came home and we looked at the footage we were like. "Woah, she just ended this period of her life."
Were you ever leading conversations in a certain direction?
For the most part, no, but there were certain things that we wanted to hear their thoughts on. With Delia and Dusty, the two younger ones, I was asking them a lot about sex. There were things that I was curious about that I would ask them, sometimes repeatedly over time, to see if things had changed. But I really took a cue from them and what they were concerned with. Following a group of seven friends, you imagine that there would be a lot of infighting, and they were very adamant about that not being the case. If they were going through a fight or something they might bring it up, but they were very girl-positive and supportive of each other, and that was amazing. I don't know if my circle of friends back when I was that age were as evolved as that.
How did you develop the film's visual style?
That was definitely Tom. He had the idea that he wanted to use one camera and one lens, which is really tricky. It was a 50mm lens, so when these girls were talking he was sitting three feet away. I think it was really important that it be intimate and not be zooming in on girls, especially being the only man in the room. I think he felt that responsibility. It needed to be diaristic but not voyeuristic. He also wanted it to have a beautiful dreamlike quality that he thought would be the way the girls might imagine a film about them to look.
Can we talk about the title? It comes from something Delia says about going back to school after the summer, and how there's "all this panic" about what to wear on your first day back.
I think that phrase speaks to a lot of things. It's about grown-ups looking at teenagers and being frightened of them. But really I think that, even though these girls are not dealing with the biggest issues in the world, it's what they're dealing with right now. There's a lot of intensity to that. It's what they're going through and it shouldn't be dismissed. It's not dismissed by them and it shouldn't be dismissed by other people either.