As they prepare to return to their New York high school, a group of real-life teenage girls let a documentary camera into their lives. Over three years of drugs, drunken parties, fallouts, disastrous crushes and parental strife they fumble towards adulthood and try to find their place in the world.
Whether it’s The Diary Of A Teenage Girl or The Edge Of Seventeen, independent cinema is going through something of a mini golden age when it comes to bold, challenging depictions of female adolescence. But, ultimately, fiction can only go so far. You could argue that even the most unvarnished and sexually frank exploration of young womanhood is going to lack some indefinable element of authenticity, some crumb of truth. And the pursuit of this realistic secret sauce seems to be one of the prime motivators behind this sumptuous, if compact, documentary about a group of girls coming of age in modern New York.
To be allowed along for the ride feels like a rare cinematic privilege.
That said, the notion of grit or ‘realism’ is something of a red herring where All This Panic is concerned. Married director Jenny Gage and producer/cinematographer Tom Betterton are better known as fashion photographers and they bring a campaign-ready, dreamy gloss to every frame here, visibly transferring the feel of narrative filmmaking onto their ostensibly true vignettes. Make no mistake, it’s ravishingly shot and captivating to look at – with golden-hour light flooding Betterton’s woozy, kinetic camera – but early on you do occasionally have to remind yourself that what you’re watching is real.
However, once you adjust to the visual mood (and abundant blurry close-ups) there’s a hypnotic pull that comes from the simple act of eavesdropping on the lives of these fledgling grown-ups. We start with a swift introduction to the seven girls as most of them prepare for their penultimate year of high school and, eventually, college. The key players are Lena (crop-haired, goofy, splitting her time between her divorced parents’ houses), Sage (sensible, prom-phobic, locked in a playfully combative relationship with her strict Caribbean mum) and sisters Dusty and Ginger (spirited and blessed with a scene-stealingly sweary British dad).
Something as premise-light as All This Panic is always going to live or die on the characters in front of the camera and, in their debut feature, Gage and Betterton have struck gold with this group. In fact, you can almost sense their glee as these complex, self-analytical (and at times jarringly worldly) New Yorkers have wry Richard Linklater-ish conversations about their therapists and the nature of love, or bicker over the correct protocol when calling your vomiting friend’s parents. Perhaps as a consequence of being weaned on self-referential pop culture, some of their unscripted speech has the sheen of movie dialogue (at one point Dusty memorably describes her sister Ginger’s gang of unemployed high school graduates as “the leftovers”) and they’re all so articulate the entire thing plays like an act of belated vindication for the Dawson’s Creek writers’ room.
And it may be this (along with queasiness about exploitation) that’s too much for some. All the earnest soul-searching will be like nails down a liberal arts college blackboard for those after something to puncture the privileged talkiness. Also, you could argue that, with a slender 80-minute running time, it may have worked better as a Seven Up!-style TV special rather than a full film.
But if you buy into the world and the characters, these minor quibbles fade. By the time we jump forward three years – and the gang have undergone affecting Boyhood-style physical transformations – we’ve seen these girls cope with everything from death and coming out to self-harm and ailing parents. That they can talk so profoundly about their experiences seems remarkable; to be allowed along for the ride feels like a rare cinematic privilege.
Yes, the premise is a bit threadbare but this is an intimate, lyrical documentary that offers a subtly effective snapshot of life as a young woman on the threshold of adulthood.