Ginger, in her own words, is “petrified of getting old.” She may only be in high school, but that hardly matters to her. If she were a character in a narrative film, the line might very well inspire some cynicism, particularly from critics exhausted by the well-established trope of New York City teenagers talking like world-weary adults. Blame Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach. But Ginger isn’t fictional. She’s the star of All This Panic, the exciting debut documentary feature from Jenny Gage.
Granted, despite being a real person, Ginger is well aware that she’s on camera when she moans about the horrors of aging. She’s considering a career in acting, after all. And she and her friends, the seven primary subjects of the film, are certainly not immune from the tropes of growing up in New York City. Like all teenagers, they perform their identities with a style between real honesty and cultural mimicry. At times All This Panic can feel like one long progression of youthful axioms and truisms, from “everyone vomits at parties” to much more profound musings on sexual orientation and interpersonal relationships.
Yet Gage has done more than simply cut together every interesting thing her subjects said in three years. She follows Ginger, her sister Dusty, her best friend Lena, and other friends of theirs out into the world. That means college for some of them, but not all. The editing is impressionistic, creating a loose sense of forward chronology but refusing any artificial milestones, like prom or graduation. One is never entirely sure where one is in the story, which underlines the film’s most important point. Everyone grows up at their own pace.
In a sense, this particular revelation isn’t perfectly clear until the film’s final moments, when Lena beautifully summarizes her agelessly wise and youthfully optimistic approach to memory. But it’s also there all along, supported by a filmmaking style that focuses on capturing moments, rather than tectonic events.
One can instantly tell that Gage and Tom Betterton, her husband and cinematographer, have a background in fine art photography. Very occasionally a shot is a bit too wistfully framed, a victim of an instinctual search for a complex image at the expense of the surrounding film. But the vast majority of Betterton and Gage’s images are gorgeous, intuitive portraits of their subjects in fleeting moments of introspection, oases that help mark the big changes occurring around them.
Taking this time to breathe is important, particularly for subjects in such a tumultuous period. Some of them have parents whose lives are even more dramatic or difficult than those of their adolescent children. Lena’s father and brother, struggling with significant psychiatric issues of their own, are rarely on screen but their influence is often felt in her life. Ginger and her younger singer Dusty may not have as heavy a strain as that, but the ups and downs of their relationship shade many of the scenes that Gage chooses to include. Olivia’s coming out process, Sage’s memory of her father’s sudden death, and other serious concerns inflect their stories rather than dominating them.
After all, Gage’s mission is not to chronicle every waking moment in the lives of her subjects. All This Panic finds its art in impressions and perceptions. The varied experiences of these young women illustrate the fluid nature of getting older, each subject reaching milestones at different times, or not perhaps not even reaching the same milestones at all. Its structural looseness and its intuitive images are its greatest attribute, making it the most accomplished American portrait of youth since at least Rich Hill.