Girls Not Interrupted: Tribeca doc ‘All This Panic’ shines a light on Brooklyn teens

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In the documentary All This Panic, screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, Jenny Gage and Tom Betterton capture the joy and drama of being a teenage girl.

The film follows Ginger and Lena, and their circle of female friends and acquaintances, for over three years. The idea for the documentary began when Gage gave birth to her first child, and was at home during the day. She would see the eleventh graders walking to school in her Brooklyn neighborhood. “I was just fascinated by them,” she recalls in a telephone interview in New York City. “I wanted to know what they were thinking and talking about. I started picturing my baby daughter’s adolescence, while having a hard time remembering my own.” Married couple Gage and Betterson co-created this well-crafted documentary debut, with her serving as the director and him as DP. They are both art photographers whose collaborations often feature images of women and girls.

All This Panic, which unfolds chronologically, opens with Ginger and Lena talking about the fast-approaching first day of school. Their friends are posting photos on Instagram of what they plan to wear, fretting over how they look, and asking others to weigh in on their outfits. Lena is surprised at “all this panic.” “She’s talking about a very small thing,” Gage observes, “but shortly after we began working with the girls, we realized that they spent a lot of their time in high school being panic-stricken, and not surprisingly, their parents experience that, too.” Some of the parents appear in the documentary. “We made sure that they were seen from the point-of-view of the girls,” Betterton says.

That perspective on parental behavior is often equivocal. Adult viewers may cringe when, for instance, Ginger’s father tells his daughter he does not want her to go away to college because he will miss her. But how will teenage viewers interpret that scene? “We just had our opening night at Tribeca,” Gage says, “and we don’t have enough feedback to know if younger audiences will see the film differently than adults, but I would love to know the answer to that as well.” The filmmakers hope to get a theatrical release, but at this writing, no deal has been announced.

All This Panic is distinguished by its ostensibly artless visual style. While one might expect still photographers to emphasize the framing of their subjects, Gage and Betterton shy away from tableaux. Instead, the camera is handheld and almost always in motion; similar to its use in a narrative film, the camera’s position reflects the subjects’ moods and emotions. “We wanted the documentary not to look like other documentaries you’d seen before,” Betterton observes. “We never used two cameras, nor did we have a zoom lens.” Betterton explains that because they expected production to last a few years, he set these and other strict stylistic guidelines for himself from the start. “We tried to break as many conventional rules as we could,” he adds, “because we wanted to make it as intimate as possible.” 

The documentary is driven by the complexity and intensity of emotion that are the hallmarks of adolescence. “When you are 15, 16 or 17 years old, it is the closest you ever come to feeling a proximity to magic,” Betterton says. “With this age group, they are the stars of their own movies, and we wanted to make the girls feel that, beauty celebrating beauty.” The girls all appear to be middle-class, and with the exception of Sage, they are white. In the course of the documentary, most go on to their first year of college, although one who aspires to an acting career thinks college is a waste of time. Sage is rebellious and fights with her strict, socially conscious mom, and Olivia struggles with her sexual identity. At the heart of the film is Lena, who strives to maintain her well-being after her mother and father divorce.

Gage noticed from the start that, like other teens, her subjects spent a good deal of time on their telephones, but as production progressed, she had flashes of her own girlhood self. “I remember the first time we filmed with them, they went to the Time Warner building,” the filmmaker says. “They scraped together $5 to buy a muffin at Bouchon and split it five ways. Then they went to Sephora to try all the free make-up. I thought to myself: I did this in the eighties, in suburban California and these girls are doing it thirty years later in New York.” All This Panic is a rare portrait of female millennials that manages to avoid all the clichés and, thankfully, none of the anxiety and urgency of their youthful hearts.