Nearly 60 years ago, film theorist Andre Bazin argued the merits of shooting in deep focus, claiming that “depth of focus brings the spectator into a relation with the image closer to that which he enjoys with reality.” While there is an undeniable truth to Bazin (and I would certainly not be so presumptuous as to challenge the man who founded “Cahiers du Cinema”), I do question the absolute accuracy of Bazin’s argument. Anyone who has ever been a teenager knows that, at certain times in one’s life, reality is experienced through a heady, hazy, buzzy mix of hormones, intoxication, and solipsism. Static deep-focus shots in the style of Welles or Renoir (both favorites of Bazin) are antithetical to capturing the teenage condition.
That’s why director Jenny Gage’s choice to shoot her subjects—several teenage girls growing up in New York City—in extreme shallow focus, often with fluid, fluttering camerawork, is such a brilliant move. Gage’s husband Tom Betterton served as director of photography; the couple has a background in fine art photography, which shows through in the film’s stylish, intoxicating look. “All This Panic,” Gage’s debut feature, perfectly captures the intensity of teen angst, the exhausting daily struggle of sex, parents, friendship strife, and the Sword of Damocles of adulthood hanging over one’s head. Gage filmed her subjects over the course of three years, as they make the transition from high school to the “real world.” Filmed primarily in intimate small-group settings, we watch as these girls gossip, party, smoke weed, struggle to get laid, deal with family issues, and agonize about their respective futures.
Like “Boyhood,” “All This Panic” allows us to watch these girls grow up before our eyes in a limited timeframe, losing their braces, changing hairstyles, and heading off to college in the space of just 70 minutes. Gage never condescends to her subjects or whitewashes their lives. They talk openly about sex (a lot) and deal with major issues—race, delinquent parents, sexuality—and while Gage often invites us to laugh at these girls, she also asks that we listen to them. Treating teens with this level of seriousness is rare in the movies, and it’s what makes “All This Panic” so refreshing.
While I’m sure there were certain logistical factors in play, Gage’s film would have benefitted from greater diversity. There is only one girl of color included, and she seems somewhat divorced from the rest of the girls, though her statements on the discomfort of being a black girl at a primarily white school offer some clarification on why. But “All This Panic” doesn’t pretend to be a definitive statement on teenhood. Rather, it is an impressionistic series of artfully photographed snapshots of a particular set of girls in a particular part of New York City at a particular time. But Gage captures a tone, a feeling, a swirling, sweltering hormonal madness that anyone who’s ever been a teen—whether they’re hip NYC chicks like the girls of “All This Panic” or uncool, undersexed midwestern nerds like this reviewer’s teenage self—will recognize. While some of the stresses of those years (friend drama, constant horniness) inevitably fall away, one question, asked in some form or another by every girl in the movie, stays with you til the end: “What do I want?”