It helps that Gage is a seasoned fashion photographer who can place the camera just right. However, she also knows how to wield her quieter footage. 

Despite its title, “All This Panic” isn’t a frantic documentary, but a dreamy one.  As it dashes through three transformative years in the lives of seven teen girls in 79 minutes, many scenes have the feeling of a dazed reunion, wherein you catch an old friend for coffee and take stock of the recognizable and the subtly changed. The film rings of a reunion in content too, as most of the teen’s hardest hits and highest highs are talked about with critical distance, rather than portrayed onscreen.  Even as the girls navigate their way through high school and hair dye experiments, college and coming out, director Jenny Gage perceptively keeps the focus on small moments, when the girls reflect and recharge.

Every scene in the film feels like the aftermath of fresh pain or joy. This makes sense. With limitations in access, Gage can only get so much immediacy. She will miss first kisses and rejections, exam rooms and job interviews. Luckily, the aftermath, the coffee reunion vibe, provides fruitful fodder for a filmmaker, as experiences become stories and stories become identity. This isn’t to say Gage is only getting after-the-fact footage and isn’t on the ground, on campus, on the streets with the teens. She is, and many of the scenes have the flourish and rhythm of narrative film. It helps that Gage is a seasoned fashion photographer who can place the camera just right. However, she also knows how to wield her quieter footage. 

One of this intimate documentary’s defining choices is following girls who are connected, whether loosely by social circles or tightly by friendship and sisterhood. At its best, the film sparks like an ensemble drama, with characters offering contrasting and complementary takes on how and when you become an adult. It’s most compelling when the girls contend over the details of a story. Whether calling a mom to a drunken party was justified, or whether bypassing college for a time was the right choice. For instance, two sisters, Ginger and Dusty, strike out at each other when little sister Dusty doubts Ginger is working on her career while living at home. The doc shows the hurtful fight, but also reveals the gentle concern for each other that defies easy expression in the vocabulary of sisterly snark.  

Still, despite all of Gage’s strong choices, “All This Panic” feels like a comment, not a conversation starter.

Still, despite all of Gage’s strong choices, “All This Panic” feels like a comment, not a conversation starter. It’s commitment to young women’s voices is invigorating, but it’s overshadowed by bolder projects speaking to the same concerns.  Watching the film is like realizing two-thirds of your potluck guests brought chocolate chip cookies. You’re not ungrateful, and they’re all a welcome addition, but you long for stronger flavors. Gage’s film lacks the wallop of narrative films, being too diluted between characters to fully invite you into any one life. Yet, as non-fiction, it can’t reach the radical openness of similar Youtube videos. Youtube is bursting with girl’s polished and pared-down vlogs, from uproarious skits to discussions of mental health, and the film’s DNA closely resembles a high-end form of these. It shares the style of a young creator narrating footage of their life, but these videos tend to have a singular voice, while Gage’s film ambles woozily moment to moment. None of which is a condemnation. It’s an observational documentary that doesn’t have the answers but thinks life is worth a big screen presentation. That’s refreshing, but not as raw or revelatory.

Gage has a knack for finding just the quotes to make the case for her unassuming documentary. Sage, one of the films socially engaged young subjects, expresses exhaustion over teen girls commodification onscreen, wanted for their appearance but not their perspective. Meanwhile, Lena, a striving college student dealing with financial struggle and unstable parents, visits a museum and gets comfort from the wealth of items that were once ordinary, now made special by surviving time. It makes her feel that even if her life’s endeavors aren’t notable, at least she gets to be around all of human ingenuity.  It’s easy to see why Gage wanted to plant her documentary debut in this too rarely respected share of human experience.  Teen girls, like everyone really, are armchair, or in this case, dorm futon philosophers. They apply world-views to themselves as liberally as hair colors, waiting to find the one that seeps in and belongs to them. Anyone who’s grown up will find themselves in that tentative self-making.  

“All This Panic” is not rated. 79 minutes,  Opening at Arena Cinelounge in Hollywood this Friday.