all this panic: jenny gage on her coming-of-age debut film

We spoke to director Jenny Gage about the seven girls who star in her documentary film All This Panic and their experiences growing up, the imprint of New York City on their lives and the power of protest on young womanhood.

If you were to spend some time sifting through Jenny Gage’s work, you’d understand why it’s been labeled ‘cinematic’ by so many. The fashion photographer turned film-maker’s lens captures female Hollywood stars so subtly, it’s as if their fame was a shell that’s suddenly been shed; a grandiose setting just as important as the figure that stands in front of it.

Having spent over a decade in New York with her partner and collaborator Tom Betterton, the city has provided inspiration for her most ambitious, if grounding work to date. Her filmmaking debut, All This Panic is a moving documentary about seven Brooklyn girls on the brink of adulthood. Those uncomfortable years between adolescence and real responsibility are often blurred when we look back upon them. A miasmic mix of school day stress, awkward sexual awakenings and nighttime curfews; they’re the times we’d rather forget about anyway. In All This Panic, Gage reframes those moments, creating something beautiful and blisteringly honest from them.

Lena, Sage, Olivia, Ivy, Delia, Ginger and Dusty: the girls that Gage follows sound like a group of teenage tearaways from an 80s high school sitcom, but the lives they lead could not be more normal. Blessed with the luxury of time, Gage and Betterton spent three years behind the camera, capturing every kind of low-key argument and teenage crush her subjects experience. The film, somehow both sweepingly shot and yet daringly intimate, shows how wise and misunderstood the young women of today really are.  

Tom Betterton and Jenny Gage
Tom Betterton and Jenny Gage

Can you remember the seed of the idea you had for All This Panic?

I’ve always been interested in that period in a girl’s life. Right after we had our daughter, Ginger and Dusty had moved in down the street. We would see them walking to school or to the subway and I was fascinated by what they [could be] talking about.

And how did you wind up approaching them about the film?

We knew them through their father, [and so] sent their parents an email asking if we could follow them around with a camera – they said yes! The funny thing is, the girls now say: “I don’t ever remember you asking! You just showed up one day and we just got used to you!”

We need more stories in which young women are the focus of the story and not the supporting characters.

Did you notice any similarities between your life at 16 and the girls’ lives now?

I grew up in Malibu, California – it was very different! Malibu’s only an hour from Los Angeles but it feels like a suburb. When I was growing up, I had to beg my parents for a ride anywhere. Even though my surroundings were different, I always responded to how the girls tried on different personalities, or spent hours alone in their room listening to music. That’s something I remember fondly about being a teenager. I had plenty of time to reflect – maybe too much time! 

New York City has such a diverse cultural makeup. You capture that so well with the girls who appear in the film; there are young women of colour and a few of the girls are beginning to understand their own sexual identity. Were their voices important?

That was our main thesis, yeah. We wanted to give these young girls a platform to tell their stories. We need more stories in which young women are the focus of the story and not the supporting characters. There’s a big push for representation of intelligent young women supporting each other. Coming of age today, despite the American political situation, is amazing! The fluidity and sexuality; the support of each other; the openness – there a lot of positives to be seen in being a teenager today.

There’s so many honest and frank discussions about sex, drinking and partying in the film. Did the girls ever have any second thoughts about being so open on camera?

Absolutely! At times, they may have been worried about what they said. But honestly, if anyone was embarrassed it was usually Tom and I and not them, you know? As the only man in the room he was usually the only one blushing! When we started filming, sex and parties weren’t on their minds; they were really focused on their friendships and school. Things kind of evolved naturally as they got older and they began to think about about boyfriends and girlfriends. It seemed natural that those things would come up in discussion.

Similarly, there are tearful moments and arguments between the girls. Did you ever think that these were things you should maybe have turned the camera off for?

There were definitely things that we felt were too personal to film, and so we chose not to. Perhaps a different documentary filmmaker would have pushed through that…

I suppose you have to be aware of the age of the girls too, right?

Absolutely – they’re young. They would move through the city so quickly and so fluidly, Tom [and I] would be sprinting to catch up with them – sometimes we wouldn’t even know what we had captured until we got home!

I watched the film with a friend of mine, and we both sat in awe of Sage’s speech on being taken seriously as a young feminist – she articulates it perfectly.

I know! People are realising that there’s so much value in what [young women] are thinking and talking about now. Sage said something that didn’t make it into the movie. She’s very smart and very politically active, but she’s also like: “I’m also totally into One Direction and there’s nothing wrong with that!” Not everything [they’re interested in] needs to be high-brow – they’re complicated!

What scents remind you of the time you spent shooting the movie?

We shot it all over New York City in the bedrooms of teenage girls, so the [most memorable] scent that sticks in my mind is some sort of incense. The smell of burning candles and heat too. Their rooms were always hot!

What coming-of-age films do you love? Did you discuss them with the girls?

I love Fish Tank and Thirteen! When I asked the girls what kind of films they liked, one that resonated with them was Palo Alto – which I agreed with. It tapped into that teenage ennui in a subtle, beautiful way that they really connected to. Another film that we all loved was Stand By Me, but the girls kept saying: “Why can’t we have a movie like this? Where’s our Stand By Me? Our Boyhood?”

I guess, even now, there’s a sad lack of mainstream films that see women celebrate each other.

Exactly. We were making a documentary film at the height of reality TV, and yet each one of [the girls] said, “I don’t want to be seen putting the other girls down”. That was such a beautiful thing.

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