Movies about teenage girls don’t get made anymore—not really. Last year we got the woefully underrated The Edge of Seventeen starring Hailee Steinfeld, and the best parts of the recently released Saban's Power Rangers focused on the adolescent group and their high school identity dramas. For the most part, though, the lives of young adults have slowly disappeared from the big screen, while the CW and Freeform hold down the TV side of things.
By that metric alone, the documentary All This Panic, which follows a group of teenage girls in Brooklyn, is refreshing and welcome. Directed by Jenny Gage and with cinematography by Tom Betterton, All This Panic over the course of three years observes the shifting dynamics of female friendships, female sisterhood, and female identity, following these young women as they embark for college or stay at home, party recklessly or clash with their parents, struggle to maintain friendships that they’ve maybe outgrown but don’t want to quite give up on yet.
There is honesty here that is both relatable and somewhat shocking (I’m grasping my pearls at these Millennials casually chatting about doing acid), and for female viewers in their 20s and 30s especially, these girls are recognizable and sympathetic, even as they do things that may be irritating, selfish, or passive aggressive. All This Panic is a viewing experience that will undoubtedly bring back both good and bad memories, even as its shortcomings—such as its uneven screen time between the girls, and a need for more ethnic and socioeconomic diversity—are obvious and frustrating.
The film focuses on a few different female friendships over the course of a few years (you can track the girls’ ages through their varying hairstyles, including some bright pink and aqua blue dye jobs that made me very jealous). The primary pair is Lena and Ginger, who go from completing each other’s sentences to sniping and undermining each other in a few seconds flat. They fight about nearly everything—including, at 15 years old, whether Lena should have called Ginger’s mother when the latter was throwing up from being too drunk at a party—but they’re practically inseparable. Ginger isn’t sure if she wants to go to college and seems to bicker constantly with her parents; on the other hand, Lena has legitimate family dysfunction, including a homeless mother, a troubled brother, and a suicidal father.
Her conversations with her parents and her brother, tinged with her frustrations, her attempts at emotional honesty, and their rejections of her feelings, are often heart-breaking. The way that her mother nonchalantly says that a neighbor called protective services on her for hosting a party for high-school-sophomore Lena with literal buckets of champagne and other alcohol is particularly enlightening. When Lena goes to Sarah Lawrence, she’ll be leaving her familial issues behind geographically, but Ginger is staying behind in New York City, with what seem like half-hearted ambitions of being an actress.
Ginger’s younger sister, Dusty Rose, is also followed, along with her best friend Delia. A few years below Lena and Ginger in school, they’re not as consumed with ideas of college yet, but their musings about boys, sex, drugs, and parental expectations are fueled by curiosity and a yearning to understand what they’re supposed to be feeling and doing as teenage girls. And more individually focused upon are Ivy, one of Ginger’s childhood friends who does an impressive amount of partying and making out with her boyfriend Gabriel; Olivia, who is coming to terms with her sexuality before she leaves for college (of her parents, she says, “I don’t see myself having a conversation with them about this. It feels too personal … and I don’t have it figured out enough to tell them one thing or another”); and Sage, a self-described feminist whose father recently passed away and whose experiences in both public and private schools have molded her as a black teenager preparing to leave New York City for the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. “The majority doesn’t mean white,” she says, but it’s unfortunate that in All This Panic, it does.
While the documentary does an excellent job trailing the girls and capturing their changing attitudes about their relationships and themselves (particularly fascinating is how Lena becomes more comfortable with herself, both physically and verbally, after a year away at college, and how Ginger and Dusty’s often cruel relationship is probably shaped by parents who provide more leeway than discipline), its focus is disappointingly myopic. In all of Brooklyn, there was only one black teenage girl who wanted to be involved? What about an Asian-American girl, or a Latina one, or a Muslim teenager? Plus, Sage is only seen in a few outfits and in a few scenes; it doesn’t seem as if the same attention was paid to her as to the other girls. Perhaps that’s a question of access, but her story is just as interesting as the other featured teens—and her mother is a delight. (When she suspects that a weed pipe in their lawn belongs to Sage, she asks, “People don’t roll it up in paper anymore?” You’re the best, Mom!)
It’s that unevenness that takes away from All This Panic—the sense that only a particular kind of privilege teenage girlhood is being represented. That’s not to at all diminish the legitimate experiences that Lena, Ginger, Dusty, Delia, Ivy, and Olivia share onscreen, but to note that All This Panic had room in its narrative for other voices, and should have included them. “You don’t have to be one thing,” Ginger and Dusty decide in one of the only moments of camaraderie between the two feuding sisters. Too bad All This Panic didn’t apply more of that mentality to itself.
RATING: 3 OUT OF 5 GUTTENBERGS