A woman on the phone and another woman looking at her in an alarmed way

Brooklynites Ginger Leigh Ryan (left) and Lena M. have gone in separate directions since high school.

It’s no surprise that so many movies focus on the teenage years. Just think what this time of life puts us through.

After ambling our way through adolescence, we suddenly have to make crucial decisions about our future while simultaneously dealing with changing bodies, insistent urges and, for many of us, crippling inferiority complexes.

All of this makes teenagers a fascinating subject for movie fiction, and it makes them an equally fascinating subject for movie documentaries. At least, it does when the documentaries are as sensitive and thoughtful as All This Panic.

Director Jenny Gage and cinematographer Tom Betterton reportedly followed a group of Brooklyn girls through three years of their lives. In the process, they created a deeply personal record of the small and large crises they faced along the way.

And make no mistake about it: Though the flick’s title could be misinterpreted as a condescending comment on teen angst, these young women lead very complicated lives.

The two most often in the spotlight are Lena and Ginger, lifelong pals who find themselves heading in different directions following high school graduation. Lena prepares to enter college while Ginger, who wants an acting career but has no idea how to get one started, doesn’t. Maybe that’s why their friendship has eroded into a series of arguments. 

Though all the girls in All This Panic are relatable, Lena may be the most lovable, and she’s certainly the most heroic. A gangly girl with braces when we first meet her, she’s desperate to find a boyfriend but can’t seem to make it happen. But her problems really begin after she becomes a student at Sarah Lawrence and is hit with a series of crises involving her not-quite-together mother and her mentally unstable father and brother.

Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, Ginger mostly spins her wheels. Her parents have urged her to put off college until she figures out what to do with her life, and they become impatient with her lack of initiative. In private moments, we learn that Ginger is struggling with fears that she’ll become just another high school memory for Lena and other college-bound friends.

Several other girls play roles of varying sizes in Gage’s documentary. Indeed, the main challenge for the viewer is keeping them all straight as they mature and evolve through changing hairstyles and colors. Besides Lena and Ginger, chief figures include:

▪ Dusty, Ginger’s younger sister

▪ Delia, Dusty’s close friend

▪ Ivy, Ginger’s hard-partying friend

▪ Olivia, who frets over doubts about her sexual orientation

▪ Sage, the film’s only African-American, who recently lost her father

Not all of the girls are covered with equal depth or perception, but nearly all have moments that are revealing and sometimes touching. That includes Dusty, whose relationship with her older sister is strained by Ginger’s frequent tirades. Yet in a conversation with Delia, Dusty expresses unexpected understanding and sympathy for what Ginger has been going through since high school.

“She just jumped into the real world,” Dusty says. “There wasn’t a segue.”

After watching All This Panic, viewers may find themselves having similar insights toward others in the process of transitioning from teenager to adult. The documentary’s compassionate approach makes it as compelling as any coming-of-age fiction.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

All This Panic (not rated) opened Friday (April 28) at the Gateway Film Center and is available through Amazon Video.

Dusty Rose Ryan (left) gets silly with her friend Delia Cunningham in All This Panic.

Appears in Issue: