High school is filled with panic. You panic over homework, you panic over friends, you panic over crushes, you panic over clothes. Mostly, you panic over nothing at all.
But for teenage girls, there's an added panic: the fear of not being heard.
That's why "All This Panic," the documentary directed by Jenny Gage which hit theaters March 31, is so relatable. High school is hard, and this film doesn't sugarcoat what, for many, is a difficult rite of passage.
In a way, it reminds me of Boyhood, Richard Linklater's 2014 coming-of-age movie remarkably shot over 12 years with the same actors. But unlike so many movies about the teenage experience, this film actually gives the girls a voice — their voice. And it should be required viewing for every teenage girl.
Gage's film follows a group of seven Brooklyn girls over the course of three years, in a style so confessional as to seem pulled straight from my own high school late night hushed phone conversations. There's Lena, who we first meet as a 16-year-old struggling with the problems common to any teenage girl (unrequited love, intense friendships, ambition, college anxiety) on top of an extremely fraught family situation. Her best friend Ginger, also 16, is figuring out what she wants from life after deciding not to go to college. "I'm petrified of getting old," she tells the camera in the film's opening minutes. "I can't stand the idea that someday someone will tell me: 'You look a bit old for that outfit.' It terrifies me, I don't want to age." (Girl, who does?)
Ginger's younger sister Dusty, 14, is trying to find her place in a world of cliques. Her friend Delia, on the other hand, seems to have it somewhat figured out. She's actually the one who utters the movie's eponymous line, while telling the camera about a friend panicking about what to wear on the first day of junior year. "There's all this panic... Like, do any of these work? She sent two, three, four, five, six, seven pictures. And she looks beautiful in all of them."
Together, they form the core four. The other three girls, who appear sporadically, are part of their circle of friends. Ivy, one of the "leftovers," as Ginger calls herself, is one of those friends you know will randomly show up in a column about It Girls someday. Sage, the only woman of color in the film, is dealing with the aftermath of her dad's death and her transition from private school to a more diverse public school. Finally, there's Olivia, who is slowly discovering that she might be attracted to girls.
The movie tracks some of the themes common to any high school experience — the pressure to make big life decisions, figuring out who you want to be, grappling with your identity separate from your best friends. But what stands out are the quiet moments where each girl speaks what's on her mind. “People want to see you, but they don’t want to hear you,” Ginger says at one point. This film is the answer.
Gage got the idea for the film from watching Ginger and Dusty, her neighbors, walk to the subway in the morning. "I'd be hanging out on the stoop and I'd see them walking to the subway together talking, one week pink hair, the next week green hair," Gage told me in an interview. "I was fascinated and so curious what they were talking about. Was it different from when I grew up? How would it be for my daughter?"
She emailed their parents for permission, and along with cinematographer husband Tom Betterton, embarked on this massive project. "We just started running after them."
Watching the film, I kept asking myself what it must feel like for these girls to watch themselves pour out their hearts onscreen. Are they embarrassed? Proud? Are they still friends?
Today, Dusty and Delia are 18. They've graduated high school, and are roughly in the same place as the older girls were at the end of the film. They're still great friends (as are Ginger and Lena, who drift apart for a while during the film — as real life friends do). I asked them what it's like to look back and see their younger selves on film.
"How do you think you'd feel watching a video of yourself when you're 14?" Dusty laughed. (For the record, that's my own personal nightmare.) "I think for anybody, it's a little bit of a strange sensation. At first you're watching it and picking apart everything you say and do and wear, but after a couple of times you start kind of appreciating it for the memories it serves. My favorite part of watching is I think I was really hard on my sister at that time. Because I was younger and I was kind of like, 'Why doesn't she have her shit figured out?' And now, I'm at a similar point in my life and I'm like, 'Oh, I really should have been more forgiving.' Being able to watch my friends' and my sister's story is kind of what I love about it."
For Delia, it's a shifting experience. "I've seen it 3 or 4 times, and every time I've seen it I've been at a very different juncture of my life. Dusty kind of had never planned to go to college and I was always like, going to college, I know where I'm going, that's the plan. And now, she's at school, and I'm not."
"I feel like anyone who had known us in high school would never have seen that twist of events," Dusty quipped.
But that's exactly the point, right? High school moves so quickly — one minute you're thinking of becoming an archeologist to discover the world's hidden mummies, and the next you're volunteering to write for the school newspaper because you've suddenly discovered journalism. (That last anecdote was definitely not based on personal experience.) You have your whole life ahead of you — but sometimes, that's a scary thing.
"I've been told a lot: 'Oh your whole future is ahead of you, you can do anything you want, you're young, this is the best period of your life,' Delia said. "Even though it's kind of disguised as freedom, sometimes it's kind of restricting. There's so much pressure to do everything and anything that you're kind of sitting there like, there's so many ways my life could go, but I have to make a choice right now on which way I'm going with it and I have no idea."
Watching the movie, you sometimes sense that all these young women — Dusty and Delia in particular — are wise beyond their years. But maybe that's because teenage girls are so rarely given a chance to express themselves in an unfiltered, and introspective way. That's what Delia and Dusty want their peers to take away from the film: What you say has value. What you're experiencing matters. We all go through it.
"There's so few opportunities as a teenage girl to watch a movie, read a book, watch a TV show, where you find some of the same anxieties and problems," Delia said. "And that treats those anxieties as real problems, not just minuscule little things, where it's like 'Oh my god, why is she so worried about what outfit she's going to wear; that this boy isn't going to kiss her.' [This] movie treats that problem with such dignity and allows that hurt to be felt."
As for whether or not they're special, Dusty thinks not. And no offense to any of these remarkable ladies, but I tend to agree. "I think that you could have made this documentary about any group of teenage girls from anywhere and they could have been able to speak insightfully about themselves and reflect on themselves and show the level of intimacy which we did," she said. "I think that I'm very privileged to have been one of those, but I don't think we're an exception."
Delia, her arm linked with her friend's, agreed: "I think we're the rule."
"All This Panic" opened in select theaters on March 31. Embrace your inner teen and get ready to emote.