all this panic is a film about teenage girls that doesn't involve boys, sex or getting wasted

Jenny Gage and Tom Betterton’s dreamy documentary follows a group of girls on the cusp of adulthood.

by Colin Crummy
24 March 2017, 11:20am

In All This Panic, director Jenny Gage and producer Tom Betterton make a film that avoids all the usual tropes of teenage life. For three years they followed a group of Brooklyn-based adolescent girls around, capturing their essence without any of the drama you might normally associate with a group of Brooklyn-based adolescent girls.

There is drama in All This Panic but it concentrates on the girls' connections with each other and themselves. When Lena goes to college, her best friend Ginger feels left behind. Olivia comes out on camera but not to her parents. Sage is on target for a scholarship to Harvard, if she can keep her rebel instinct in check. Ivy is the ultimate NYC It-Girl, but everything is not as sorted as it seems.

These are New York City, always with places to be. They are always impeccably dressed, like getting ready for a walk on in GIRLS or Search Party. All This Panic is visually lush and dreamlike, the filmmakers' background as fashion photographers -- whose work has appeared in W, Vanity Fair and Italian Vogue -- coming through.

But the filmmaker couple's ear for the real milestones in the girls' lives is as strong as their eye for capturing teenage style. Below, we asked them about framing the teenage girl experience differently.

How did you settle on the title?
Jenny: A friend of ours pulled out this line from the film. It spoke to how the girls feel in that moment. It also spoke to how grown ups look at teenagers in that moment -- they are also panicked! It even spoke to the mundaneness of being a teenager, like when it's the first day of school and you're deciding what to wear. That is a big deal.

Was it in any way ironic? Because the film shows teenagers of this generation doing exactly the same as many others before. They aren't that different.
Jenny: Yes, right. We thought that teenagers would be so different from when we were young. These are city girls. The first day we went to film them we met at Columbus Circle they said they were going to the mall. I thought, where's the mall in New York City? Are we going to New Jersey? It was actually the Time Warner Building. We go in and there's the Bouchon Bakery and Sephora. They sit at a table, pooling money so they could buy a muffin and split it six ways. Getting kicked out because they drank all the free tea and tried on all the free make up. That's exactly what I did in the suburbs 30 years ago.
Tom: We started filming them when they were young teenagers. People came with expectations about out of control teens. There is this thing put on teenagers by other people. The more we filmed them we realised how deeply they thought about things and how difficult a time it is to navigate.

How did your fashion background inform the film?
Tom: It was a textural thing. They were amazingly cool and well dressed and we wanted to look at that in an empathetic way, about the meaning behind how you dress, which probably came from our experience as photographers.
Jenny: We definitely set out to make a beautiful documentary. We feel that beauty has inherent meaning and these girls are at a time in life when there's magic in the air and you feel like a star in your own film. So we wanted to make a film about them that they would like to see about themselves. There is this magic and beauty to the film.

On the surface at least, the girls live a privileged life -- living in New York in nice houses, wearing good clothes. Were you concerned that might prove alienating to the audience?
Jenny: We wanted to make it about a circle of friends. We knew we could have made a documentary about this kind of girl, this kind of background but we wanted to focus on this circle of friends. That was the most important thing to us.
Tom: It doesn't matter who you look at or where they come from, if you go in closer and closer and have the faith to stick with it, you'll find universality in that. Maybe it's more of a pure artistic statement to not pick and choose things that you know are going to be better for a documentary. It felt like a statement just doing it. Also nothing is quite what it seems. Their surface is extremely different from what's going on behind-the-scenes in their lives. You see these girls in big cities like London or New York: she's well dressed, she's cool…
Jenny: …her life is sorted.
Tom: But if you come in close, there's a lot of layers.

Read: How a movie about cannibalism became the coming-of-age film of the year.

All This Panic is in cinemas from 24 March


Text Colin Crummy
Photos by Tom Betterton