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CONSTRUCTING TEEN IDENTITY ON-SCREEN: ALL THIS PANIC

‘I was at the Metropolitan Museum with all my friends […] we all went into the temple of Dendrur and looked at all the hieroglyphics and I looked around and realised that all this stuff, something that was so everyday for people at the time, all of it was in the MET now, all of it was art, all of it was meaningful and important’. Voiced by fiercely precocious Lena, the film’s unofficial narrator, this quietly revelatory concluding monologue serves to underscore All This Panic’s emphasis on the meaningfulness and importance of the teenage girl. Despite their hypervisibility in popular culture, teenage girls are rarely permitted the authorial voice which the documentary format of All This Panic affords them. Following a friendship group that constellates around sisters Ginger and Dusty over a three year period, the film resists any inclination to speak for the girls via an intrusive monologue or more conventionally narrative editing style, allowing the lives and voices of its subjects to drive the film’s direction.

 

 

Though Gage’s camera roam’s freely around the Clinton Hill neighbourhood of her chosen teenage milieu (we ‘drop in’ on the lives of at least half a dozen girls during the course of the film’s slight 76 minute running time), it is Lena and Ginger’s relationship that forms its emotional core. The editing, which dots between Ginger’s sprawling townhouse and Lena’s increasingly difficult family circumstances, initially seems to dwell on the differences between the two girls, encouraging a simple reading of the film as a social commentary on the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ of American girlhood. Angst-ridden Ginger, whose ‘outsider’ status is thrown into sharp relief by the easy-going conventionality of her younger sister, is hard to like at the outset. Disinterested in following the same trajectory as her peers, she opts not to apply to college and instead pursue acting, a goal that she does nothing to realise, trapped in a purgatory of indecision. Counterpoised with the threat of homelessness that stalks Lena’s dysfunctional family (and her tenacious will to succeed despite this seemingly insurmountable difficulty), Ginger’s retreat into malaise starts to read like privileged apathy.

 

However, though sometimes compared to ‘Up’, Michael Apted’s documentary series following the lives of fourteen British children from different socio-economic backgrounds that screened on ITV this week, its woozy, pastel hued aesthetic makes the film feel less like cultural commentary and more like a formal expression of the girls inner lives, their intimate feelings writ large on the film’s visual style.[1] Regardless of the differences between the girls, what the film expresses is their liminality and shared uncertainty. Gage’s handheld camera, often centred on the girls’ faces in close-up, as if desperate to catch the feelings that flit at lightning speed across their animated faces, begins the film shaky and out-of-focus, rendering the girls as shapeless, borderless forms and delighting in their insusceptibility to capture. As the girls grow older, the camera begins to rest more easily upon them, perhaps matching the girls’ more assured sense of self. One tableau of Ginger, photographed against the stairwell of her home just after revealing her romantic relationship with another girl, feels like an outbreath, with Ginger offering one of her only smiles, a weight lifted from her shoulders and the anxieties of her lost year seemingly resolved.

 

 

The film doesn’t shy away from depicting the beauty of the girls themselves. Part of the pleasure of All This Panic derives from watching them try on different personas for size in a quest for authenticity. In this sense, the film bears comparison to Melanie Manchot’s 11/18, a video installation in which the artist filmed her daughter Billie for one minute a month for seven years.[2] The resulting film is a study not only of the stages of growing up, but a wider commentary on what it might mean for contemporary teens to document these stages online. Though exhibited out of sequence, the 18 minute long final cut invites many of the same considerations as All This Panic. Though the film does not engage with the role of social media in teenagers’ lives with quite the fervour of Bo Burnham’s Eight Grade, the assuredness with which these teens articulate themselves on camera perhaps speaks to their familiarity with an analytical mode of self-documentation that is also hinted at by references to their therapists and private performing arts school (it seems no coincidence that this is LaGuardia— the performing arts school upon which the musical Fame was based).

 

 

 Indeed, despite its vérité style, the supposed artificiality of All This Panic has been criticised by several reviewers. Simran Hans, whilst spot on about how seriously the film takes the girls and their lives, has suggested that the film ‘leans a little heavily’ on its ‘Instagram aesthetic’.[3] Similarly, the film’s ‘sepia-hued soft focus’ has been singled out for criticism by Gabriela Helfet of Little White Lies for, apparently, attempting ‘to replicate the style of a Petra Collins photoshoot’.[4] These insinuations that the film is simply too ‘pretty’ to have any weight of meaning are worth investigation. In her book Pretty, a feminist study of the decorative image, Rosalind Galt refutes the idea that ‘pretty’ images are necessarily superficial, citing this trivialisation of the decorative as a vestige of patriarchal ideology.[5]  She claims that ‘pretty’ images are necessarily feminised and, thus, have radical political potential. Where feminist film studies and criticism has tended to reject pleasure of the visual, Galt proposes to ‘open up the productive potential of the aesthetic as feminist form’.[6]

 

I would suggest that the implication that the prettiness of All This Panic is vapid or tedious misses the importance of its aesthetic style to its feminist politics. Made about young women, by young women and, arguably, for young women, All This Panic’s appeal to the female gaze serves as a counterpoint to the binarism of looking that Laura Mulvey famously identified operating within classical Hollywood cinema.[7] Indeed, it is interesting that Helfet draws on the work of Petra Collins in her critique of the film’s visual aesthetic, given that Collin’s has cultivated a photographic style that emphasises the ‘ethereal softness of femininity’ as a direct appeal to the female gaze.[8] What these criticisms of the film’s visual style unwittingly replicate is the patriarchal ideology that the film sets out to refute. Attesting to the inseparability of politics and form, the film’s prettiness embodies its rejection of the trivialisation of the teenage girl, imbuing her everyday hopes, dreams, trials and tribulations with meaning and import. If Galt proposes that to ‘to imagine genuinely radical future’ one needs ‘a decorative eye’ we could do no better than to turn our gaze to All This Panic.

 

 

Works Cited

[1] 63 UP, dir. Michael Apted, ITV, 4 June 2019, 9pm.

 

[2] Melanie Manchot, 11/18, 2016, video installation, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne.

 

[3] Simran Hans, ‘All This Panic: the most relatable film about teenage girlhood ever?’, Guardian, 26 March 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/26/all-this-panic-most-relatable-film-teenage-girlhood-documentary-jenny-gage>.

 

[4] Gabriela Helfet, ‘All This Panic’, Little White Lies, 23 March 2017 < https://lwlies.com/reviews/all-this-panic/>.

 

[5] Rosalind Galt, Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2011).

 

[6] Ibid., p. 9.

 

[7] Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema and Narrative Cinema’, in Visual and Other Pleasures (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1989).

 

[8] Leah Pfenning, ‘Book Review: Coming of Age by Petra Collins, Musée, 30 October 2017 <http://museemagazine.com/culture/2017/10/30/book-review-coming-of-age-by-petra-collins>

 

Written by Alice Pember; this piece accompanied our screening of All This Panic at Dalston's Rio Cinema on Sunday 9th June and was introduced by film journalist Ella Kemp (twitter - @ella_kemp). Alice (twitter - @alpember) is currently in the midst of a PhD at Queen Mary University on dance and politics in contemporary film.  

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