Film Review: All This Panic

The wise come of age.
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“I don’t wanna age!” cries teenage Dusty early in Jenny Gage’s feature documentary debut, the lovely All This Panic. “I think that’s the scariest thing in the entire world.”

Panic is a coming-of-age film that follows seven Brooklyn girls over three years. Some are in high school, others are in college, and some begin working at 18, or at least begin contemplating the prospect. Before any of them have advanced very far in the temporal process that so horrifies Dusty, all encounter things that should scare sensible women of any age.

The film’s closest thing to a protagonist is Lena. She’s tall and pale and dark-haired and has the kind of effortless urban fashion sense that makes a strapless bra and overalls look cosmopolitan. If life were an escapist novel, she would be some young artist’s muse, not least because she says the darndest–and piercingly wisest–things. Lena’s younger brother suffers from undefined psychological trouble, and her mother and father are divorced and in difficult financial straits, which renders Lena’s future at Sarah Lawrence uncertain. As she notes, with the maturity of someone whose circumstances likely forced her to adopt the state, if she doesn’t make school her priority, she’ll only make everything else in her life worse. Which doesn’t mean she’ll abandon her initial college goal: secure a boyfriend.

Lena’s best friend from high school is the articulate, combative and insecure Ginger. She’s decided to delay college in order to travel or act or maybe do both… or maybe do something else entirely in order to “find herself,” although most of what we see her do is wander about, lost and often at the hip of fellow townie Ivy, the sexy coolgirl who looks too smart for the male lackeys with whom she surrounds herself. Burdened with choice, Ginger is stuck.

The group also includes Ginger’s younger sister, Dusty, and Dusty’s perceptive friend, Delia, as well as introspective Olivia, whose fascinating character arc begins when she admits she is bored with a boyfriend, climbs when she reveals she may be gay and crests sweetly when we meet her college girlfriend. It’s rounded out by Sage, one of the few black girls at her Manhattan prep school (and the only one in this movie). Like the others, she’s intelligent and aware. She’s also more political than they are, her seemingly natural sensibility tragically enhanced by the death of a beloved father who discussed current events with her. She’s excited to attend Howard University and to finally, as she has heard other black students describe it, expel a breath she didn’t know she was holding in.

It bears noting that race is not something any of the other girls discuss, seemingly (some might charge, facilely) because it doesn’t appear to touch them. When it comes to cultural commentary, sometimes silence is the most instructive.

Director Gage earned her MFA in photography from Yale and has collaborated with her DP husband, Tom Betterton, on high-profile work featured in W and Italian Vogue. Accordingly, their film is highly aestheticized, saturated with color and the sort of brightness that calls to mind beach houses with yellow walls and white, fluttering curtains. Sometimes all that long girl-hair rippling in the sunlight can border on the visually saccharine, but it’s mostly effective as a soft contrast to the hard realities that fill the girls’ conversation: sex and change and fear and all those maybes. They’re leaving childhood behind, but the film’s visuals argue that it clings to them still.

Toward the end of the movie Lena rides in a taxi on her way to the airport to begin a summer of travel. Even if I don’t end up making anything great, she muses of her future, staring out the window, at least there’s the world around me to just look at.

I think you’re supposed to tell teens like Dusty that when you get older things get better. But it feels truer to repeat Lena’s insight. If that’s something they understand anyway, then the kids really are all right.

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