How These Teenage Girls Changed Over 3 Years

Photo: Tom Betterton
Remember when you’re a teenager and you talk about the future all the time, even though your vision of it only extends as far as who you’re going to snog on the weekend, where you’re going on your first no-parents holiday and possibly, at a push, which city you’re running away to for university. Then, when you become an adult, you stop going on about the future so much, because you’re in it?
Sorry to bum you out but the good news is that, while new documentary All This Panic takes a group of Brooklyn teenagers' transition into adulthood as its subject matter, it won’t necessarily make you feel old. In fact, watching its all-female protagonists as they hang out at concerts, parties and parks might take you back to adolescence in a cute, nostalgic kind of way. It also might – at its more confrontational moments – make you glad you grew up and escaped all the angst.
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The film was originally an experiment: when filmmakers Jenny Gage and Tom Betterton decided to follow the girls over the course of three years, they weren’t sure how it would work out – after all, the story was shot as it was unfolding. But what ensued was messy and beautiful – the make-ups, break-ups, highs, lows, firsts and lasts that come with being between the tender ages of 16 and 19. Plus, through Betterton’s cinematography, it all looks like it's happening in the dying light of the last day of the summer break.
Below, we talked to Gage and Betterton about how the project was born, and what it taught them about being a teenager today.
Hey guys, so to start with, since this is your first film, tell us about you...
Jenny Gage: Tom and I are a team, we work as still photographers, fashion photographers and on film projects. We’re also married and have three young kids, and we embarked on this film about four years ago.
If you’ve got young kids of your own, didn’t the idea of following teenagers around terrify you?
Jenny: Well, when we started there was a disconnect in terms of seeing our kids and the girls we were following, but as our kids got older we definitely saw our future! We knew Ginger and Dusty a little bit. Ginger’s father is a hair stylist we know through work and when we started the project they were living down the street from us. I would see them walking to the subway to go to school and was fascinated by what they were thinking about and talking about and whether their teenage years were very different from mine and how they’ll differ from my daughters’.
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We sent their parents a letter and asked if we could follow their daughters around with a camera. When we started the project the thesis was just to record what they had to say and what they were thinking about, because you don’t really hear what it’s like to be a teenage girl growing up today. We didn’t set out to make a conventional documentary; we wanted a dreamlike feel to it and yet for it also to be fast-paced... what your teen years are like.
Was there any concern that the girls would change their minds over the years?
Jenny: In the back of our minds we always thought, ‘Would someone decide to drop out?’ When they were minors their parents signed with them and then when they were 18 they had to re-sign again as grown-ups and there was one of them a little wobbly about that, but in the end they all went for it and I think they were happy they stuck with it.
Tom Betterton: It was a total act of faith on both sides. The signing was just permission to use their images, there was no contract, no promises, just that we assumed we would continue to be interested in them and they would be interested in us and fortunately they stuck around. Their main concern was that it came out after high school, because the end of high school is like the event horizon. When you’re in high school all you care about is what friends in high school think about you. And then once you’re out of high school that other life starts. But you don’t realise it’s all one life.
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It’s shot beautifully, what can you tell me about the process?
Tom: Early on we decided, as far as the role the camera has, we wanted the audience to feel like they are participating in the intimacy. So we filmed with a single camera, a single lens, all handheld. It made it much more difficult to capture everything but it never allowed us or the camera to be in a position of just observing.
They let you go to house parties, take drugs, watch them talk about their sex lives... did they ever take persuading?
Jenny: At times it was awkward and Tom often said he was usually the only one blushing in the room. But by the time they were going to parties their parents knew they were going, and they were good girls. Every teenager pretty much drinks and smokes a little at a party but we never felt like they were doing things that we needed to tell their parents about. The only thing was when Ginger was cutting herself, we would have talked to her parents about that but we found out after her parents. And she was already going to therapy.
Tom: I think we were the 'very interested aunt and uncle' types. We had no control over them but they could tell us anything they wanted to. Pretty quickly there was no need to push them or ask them to go further, they just were comfortable and allowed us to be an audience to what they went through. We didn’t want it to be sensational because that just pushes buttons. Some of the stuff we saw them do we didn’t include because we didn’t need that.
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I cringed in parts because Ginger reminded me of being a teenager and thinking the whole world was against me. Did it make you feel like that?
Jenny: Definitely. There were times when we were filming that we wanted to shake her. But I relate so much to Ginger because part of it is thinking you’re more grown-up than you are but, more than that, being asked to be more grown-up than you are. Ginger was only 18, she didn’t go to college and a lot of her friends did and were acting 18 and trying to figure out who they were, and she was looked at as though, 'You didn’t go to college so you need to get a job and act like the rest of us who are 30-year-olds' and I think that’s a lot to ask of an 18-year-old. It was isolating for her to be left and not have a plan, and she was unable to self-motivate 'cause she was being critical of herself and she was stuck in a rut.
Was anything really different for kids today from when you were growing up?
Jenny: The social media, for sure. I think that plays a huge part but also we were really surprised that, at the end of the day, human interaction is still so important to teenagers and yes, they’re on their phone and yes, they’re doing Instagram and Snapchat but really, how much more are they doing that than any grown-up in a room? They still crave human interaction. There’s a lot more similarities to when I was that age than differences.
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Tom: There’s the fluidity of sexual identity. Olivia demonstrates it. In an older generation it might have been a more fraught coming-out story, with a whole struggle against perception. It’s different around the world but largely we saw that archetypal coming-out story has disappeared a little bit, and that’s a wonderful advancement in society.
Do you think girls this age generally get a bad rap? Were you trying to rectify that?
Jenny: I definitely feel that the media can do that, but mostly I feel like there could be a lot more stories about girls at this age that really value what they have to say. When we were filming... a lot of people said, ‘Teenage girls won't come to the movies and they don’t wanna see this’. But I feel like there’s a hole in entertainment for that age group to see themselves.
Tom: Mostly we were just conscious to not have boys in the film because it's so prevalent that when films introduce a female character, you look to the actions, words, or behaviours, or boy or young man, to help you understand the female characters and that doesn’t happen the other way around. So we didn’t want anyone else to explain, we wanted these young women to explain for themselves.
Final question: What did you learn that surprised you?
Jenny: Well, one of the greatest things we saw was friendship. It was very important to the girls from the beginning that they made a point of letting us know they didn’t want to talk about each other unless there was a reason. No 'she did this or that'. They were supportive of each other when they had issues, which was great to see. I don’t know if my group of friends at that age were that supportive or evolved. And that’s huge.
All This Panic is out on 24th March
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