All This Panic (2016)

Directed by Jenny Gage

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All This Panic is a documentary that follows a group of high school girls over the course of four years.  They live in New York, and it’s not hard to see them turning into some version of the characters from the television program Girls.  These girls start out as kids, though kids who drink and smoke and discuss things they don’t seem quite old enough for.  At the same time they’re very consumed with the opposite sex, perceived grievances amongst themselves and a fear of getting older.

They are entirely consumed by this time of their life, and that’s where the title of the documentary comes in.  Nothing ever seems settled even though the documentary team themselves (a husband and wife duo) seem to look at the girls with a sense of amusement, knowing that they will look back on this time with nostalgia.

In scenes talking to the camera, the girls seem to be worried about everything.  They have some sense of humor when it comes to their friends’ complaints, but when they’re asked to talk about themselves, everything becomes serious.  As they get older and head off to college, though, they begin to mellow out a bit.  They start to feel older than they really are, but they’re at least old enough to have some perspective on their lives in high school and friendships with the other girls, some of whom they don’t really keep in contact with.

There are a lot of similarities between this and Boyhood or really any other coming of age story.  It’s a beautifully-shot and compelling portrait of these characters, though they’re real people and not typical movie characters.  But I want to call them characters.  This documentary is unlike many I’ve seen recently in that it portrays the action onscreen much like a narrative film.  While some scenes might be filmed in one shot, there is often a heavy amount of cutting to multiple other shots, suggesting a gap in time between the shots (unless they were working with multiple cameras, but I didn’t get that sense).

If indeed they filmed with one camera, the amount of shots in a given scene implies that something was cut out in order to compress time and put these shots back to back.  To add to that, everything was filmed on a 50 mm lens, adding some visual flair (and bokeh) to most shots which, like the cuts, made this film feel like a scripted production.  It is extremely beautiful, but it dramatizes and glorifies these characters in a way most documentaries don’t.  Instead of trying to maintain the realism (a la a Louis Malle documentary), the team of Jenny Gage and her husband (who shot the movie), Tom Betterton, tried to polish the story and the characters.

In several scenes (this documentary really does seem to play out like a movie, with neatly constructed scenes and conversations that get to the point surprisingly quickly), some kind of MTV Real World type pop song kicks in, and we’re treated with an otherwise silent montage of what’s going on.  From a technical standpoint, these scenes are well-made, but they feel too shiny, too Pinterest-y, like these really are the versions of their story the girls want to be made.  And watching it, I appreciated the quality of the story and the ‘acting’ as it seemed, but it nonetheless felt acted.

So that’s my own personal complaint, but in an interview I read, Gage and Betterton discussed how this was precisely the point.  They wanted to dramatize the events and edit them in a way to portray how that moment would have felt to the girls in the story.  Even if it’s just a moment in which a girl and a guy attend a concert in Brooklyn, it’s cut together to look like the happiest moment of Romeo & Juliet before everything goes wrong.  It’s not just that these girls are having a good time, they’re having the best time of their lives.  Everything is hyper-important, either amazing or terrible.  There is no middle ground.

I don’t like this style as much as a more objective approach to the story because it does suggest a certain degree of manipulation by the director, which is okay, but it’s hard to tell how far that manipulation goes.  Even if you edit just a little of a documentary to achieve a certain reaction, but do so in obvious ways (such as a music-scored montage), it creates a mystery as to how much of the documentary is similarly-influenced.  Maybe that’s just something I feel, but it’s like someone telling mostly truths but just enough lies to make you question all the truths.

Still, I do think this filmmaking style does a good job of reflecting the current form of consumption among people the age of the people in this documentary.  The emotions of a scene are spoon-fed to us, but that’s exactly what something like an MTV reality show does as well.

Another aspect of the documentary that makes these girls feel like characters more than real people is because they themselves are very expressive on camera.  They feel too expressive, in fact, like this really is all a performance, but that says more about teenagers today and their relationships to the camera.  These girls have been in front of a camera most of their conscious lives, having likely been born around the turn of the century and likely only 7 or 8 when the first iphone was released.

The subjects of Louis Malle’s 1985 documentary God’s Country opened up to the camera because, I would guess, they were so unused to a camera that they didn’t understand the guarded feeling many people would soon feel towards cameras as they became more common.  But here, cameras are so prevalent that it achieved a similar result.  The people on camera are very relaxed because it’s just a part of their lives.  I’m trying to think of a good metaphor for this, and this is what I’ve got: It’s like when a baby tiger, raised in captivity, meets a baby Gazelle and they become friends.  The gazelle is too young to know that it should fear the tiger, so they bond.  The gazelle in this case is the same as the subjects of Malle’s 1985 documentary.  But then maybe that gazelle is released into the wild and starts to see that hey, tigers will try to kill you.  Or lions, maybe lions are a better example.  Okay the tiger is a lion now, but the point remains.  So now that gazelle doesn’t trust lions.  This is where the metaphor ends unless you think the gazelle gets to a point where it’s so tired of fleeing from lions that when it sees them, it just shrugs (as best as a gazelle can shrug) because it’s so used to them.

Okay, that’s far from perfect, and it probably wasn’t worth writing about.  I’ll leave it anyways.

So All This Panic feels like an engaging, fully realized portrait of millenials, to use an umbrella term.  If this were just a narrative film, I think I would love it.  The subjects of the movie are fascinating, often over dramatic or self-indulgent, but then again so am I.  They talk about themselves probably because Gage asks them questions about themselves and rolls the camera.  The girls have an interesting perspective on their own lives and of the future, but it’s one you kind of smile at because you can already anticipate the ways in which they will change and look back on this version of themselves as quite foolish.  But that’s what growing up is.

When you’re the age that these girls are, certain things are taken care of for you.  They live at home with no need to make an income, at least not yet, so their concerns are reserved for the social aspects of their lives.  There are subtle indications of other factors that will burden them as the story of their lives goes on, but these concerns are often engulfed by bigger worries about boys and their reputations.

By the end of the movie, it’s heartwarming to see how the girls have changed and grown up, yet because of the style of the movie that I mentioned earlier, everything feels like it’s wrapped up a little too nicely.  This is a movie that I love on one hand, but I still can’t get over that MTV-style of editing.  The movie simultaneously lets you roll your eyes affectionately at the girls, knowing their drama isn’t that dramatic, but it also wants you to feel what they feel.  It tries to bring you into their world, I suppose.  I’d have to re-watch it to verify this, but perhaps the documentary starts out with more objectivity and then progressively becomes more MTV-like.

Still, we are given a very intimate look into the lives of this group of friends.  We see things we sometimes think we shouldn’t be seeing or that we’re surprised to see.  They’re often more open than they realize, but again that goes back to the relationship with cameras.  I think much of modern life, at least as it pertains to social media, is a performance.  So maybe the “characters” these girls play really are characters.  No matter how comfortable you are on camera, you’re going to try to look your best.

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