Jenny Gages intimate documentary of seven Brooklyn teenagers has been praised for its honest account of growing up. We asked four British school friends to assess it
I dont want to age. I think thats the scariest thing in the entire world, says Ginger Leigh Ryan, one of the girls featured in Jenny Gages documentary All This Panic. Set in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Clinton Hill and directed by the former US fashion photographer, with cinematography by her husband Tom Betterton, the film follows seven teenagers best friends Lena and Ginger, their school friends Sage, Olivia and Ivy, Gingers younger sister Dusty, and Dustys best friend Delia over a three-year period.
i-D magazine said the film might be the most honest documentary about teenage girlhood ever. Thats a bold claim, but theres something to be said for the way Gages film articulates the emotional intensity of being a teenage girl. What makes it different from other coming-of-age films is the way it allows the girls to articulate their experiences as they occur, and in their own words. The Virgin Suicides showed teenage girls as their male classmates remembered them; Spring Breakers objectified and parodied them; films like Fat Girl, Fish Tank, Girlhood and Mustangshaped their stories around their protagonists particular traumas rather than their triumphs. Gage takes them seriously, and wants to hear what they have to say about the world and their place in it. The film follows the girls as they experiment with dating and drinking, but doesnt dodge more serious issues, like Lenas dysfunctional family and precarious finances, Gingers decision not to go to college (and her fathers insistence that she try and be more interesting), and Olivias eventual coming out.
The girls are shot up-close and in shallow focus, Bettertons handheld camera creating an intimacy that feels cinematic rather than anthropological. It wont be to everyones tastes at times the film leans a little heavily on its Instagram aesthetic but it captures the way the smallest details swell and become significant when you are 16. As Tavi Gevinson, who started blogging aged 12 and founded teen magazine Rookie, put it, to be on the cusp of adulthood is to become familiar with the rose tint of nostalgia in real time.
For a British view, we invited 16-year-old friends Cienna, Lucy, Alex and Emily to watch All This Panic and share their thoughts on it. I want to find out if the Brooklyn experience can translate to the London borough of Bromley, and if the girls see anything of themselves on screen. The four are studying for their GCSEs at Newstead Wood school for girls. Its Friday night, and were at the house of Saskia van Roomen, who runs Bromley family film club, an Into Film group where Cienna is a volunteer.
We crowd around Saskias breakfast bar and the girls tell me how they met (theyre in the same form), which of them has a boyfriend (Alex), and what they want to be when they grow up (Emily, news producer; Cienna, scientist; Lucy, business executive or lawyer; Alex, still deciding).
Like any tight-knit group of girls they talk at top speed, finishing each others sentences and stopping mid-anecdote to explain in-jokes. All are serious about school and stylish. But small things remind me that they are still 16-year-olds. Like Ciennas Harry Potter socks (yellow, for Hufflepuff), or Alex and Emilys obsession with Australian pop-punk band 5 Seconds of Summer. When I quiz them about the best thing about being a teenager, Lucy replies that they dont have to worry about taxes or anything.
Watching the girls watch the documentary proves an entertaining experience. They sit snuggled up on Saskias sofa, swooning and squirming in unison. All gasp, cringing with recognition when Lena tells the camera that her crush rejected her at the very party she had thrown in the hope of having her first kiss with him. She ends up kissing someone else, a disappointing experience by her own admission. I prod the girls on the subject of romantic rejection. Everyones been there, where theres someone you like and they dont like you back, says Cienna matter-of-factly after the film. It wasnt so much that she kissed the other guy, it was the unrequited bit, says Emily.
Some critics consider the film slight at 79 minutes and too focused on the banalities of being a teenager. This, Id argue, is its strength. By detailing the minutiae of the girls inner lives, the film creates a space for their self-reflection. Teenagers and teenage girls especially are frequently misrepresented in the media as shallow and self-absorbed, rather than simply soul-searching. All This Panics interest in their existential anxieties provides a rare glimpse into their minds. The girls seem to agree.
In the film, Lena reveals that both she and Ginger went through a period of cutting themselves. I ask if self-harm is something thats happening among people they know. Definitely, says Alex. Obviously everyone has problems and people I know have gone through things. [Self-harm] is definitely still a very serious issue. Then Emily tells me: I was just thinking that a lot of the girls in the film deal with big issues, like Sage [the films only African American girl discusses her experiences of racism], but the movie focused on the small issues as well, the things that make you really annoyed as teenagers.
Like boys! says Alex.
I know it sounds really small and pathetic, says Cienna, but one of the things that I really loved was when they were talking about guys bringing along their other guy friends. Thats a conversation we have before every party. The others nod in agreement. Who youre going to see, who youre going to meet, who youre going to talk to, adds Alex. And, Emily says: Are they going to be good-looking?
Over popcorn and a stack of pizza, I spoke to the girls about their desire to be taken seriously, the similarities between growing up in New York and London, and what it feels like to be 16.