Ways of Seeing: Growing Up with ‘All This Panic’

It was the year David Bowie died, the year of Donald Trump’s election, the year of an extremely divisive referendum on the European Union. For me, it was the year that I lost my way a little bit. I found myself in flux, feeling directionless and unsure that I had made the right decisions for my future or that I was becoming the person I had envisaged. At nineteen, I felt a pressure to make choices about my life that I wasn’t ready to make; I didn’t know myself well enough yet. Did I pick the right course at University? Should I have moved out? Should I go for this? Should I know myself better by now? I was caught up in the flurry of questions and wrestling with becoming an adult, a fully-fledged person, whatever that meant.  

Then, as is often the way, exactly what we need appears in unexpected forms. For me, this was ‘All This Panic.’ A gorgeous looking film that was previewed as part of the 2017 Glasgow Film Festival selection. It was shown in the cinema at the CCA on Sauchiehall Street; situated just across the road from a flat I had rented with my best friend that previous year. A short-lived array into independent living before a grand retreat to the East end of Glasgow and my family home. The film, a documentary, follows seven teenage girls from Brooklyn over the course of three years as they each, in their own way, try and navigate their youth and their way out of it. The film’s director Jenny Gage and her husband began the project after getting to know their neighbour’s two daughters, Ginger and Dusty, and their school friends. The film follows them as they come to important intersections in their lives and gives them a voice to express their personal struggles, as they see them, in the search of their identity as young women.

The familiarity between the director and the girls translates itself on film as they openly and intimately relate trivial teenage obsessions, the intensely personal and sometimes traumatic experience of navigating the uncertainty of the future, and a burgeoning self-awareness and growing personal responsibility. From talk of parties and gossip to subjects like self-harm, institutional racism, burgeoning sexuality and difficult family relationships, this film carefully –and with a deep emotional intensity – allows these young women on the cusp of their independence to come to terms with themselves and with the cards they have been dealt. The film, at the same time, showcases the powerful support systems that exist between these women, reiterating the foundational strength inherent in those close childhood friendships.

Ginger and Lena, the film’s most central characters, fascinated by boys and drink and drugs, are often filmed arguing. However, the empathy and concern that they show for each other throughout the film speaks of the deep love between the two girls. As they graduate, they are each led on diverging paths: Lena finding a new confidence and sense of self in further education while Ginger opts not to go to college and finds herself stuck. Both girls rely on each other; they are grounded and tested by their friendship. Lena, whose parents’ divorce and father’s deteriorating mental health leads her to self-harm, feels trapped, acting as mediator for her mum and dad, balancing their problems with her own financial struggles as she attends an American college. Ginger, feeling like the world is moving on without her and unable to commit to any direction, also suffers from poor mental health, turning to self-harm as a misguided coping mechanism. However, it is through communicating and sharing their burdens with each other that they can find balance and strength, which they cannot find at home.

One of the most poignant moments in the film and one that I find difficult to watch every time without feeling myself writhe, is a scene in which Ginger, having finished high school, and feeling left in a sort of “purgatory,” is told by her father that she needs to “learn how to become interesting.” This scene, this moment between Ginger and her father, as they struggled together to make sense of how she feels and of what she wants, was reminiscent of conversations I had had with my own family. Her frustration and her vulnerability are sorely felt as she tells her dad: “I don’t think I’m fully formed…but do you know how horrible it is when you tell me I’m not interesting?” In seeing this moment played out in this raw and unfiltered environment, I felt how difficult it was to be a person in this world with the weight put upon us to become something more than we are. I couldn’t help but wonder, in my own way, what was it to be interesting? I was always told that to be interesting, one had simply to be interested.  Ginger, at this point in her life, as all of us at some stage must, is trying to carve out a space in the world for herself amidst the pressures to conform to a prescribed path, trapped in a normative, and often unsympathetic, society which has life mapped out for her, judging her for having not found her way.

All of the girls are so shaped by their parents, by their backgrounds and by each other. It is in this respect that the film speaks of the universal experience of growing up. There are so many pressures to be a certain way, to be seen as a particular kind of person in the world, to be beautiful, desirable or interesting. Interesting to whom? Beautiful in what way? Desirable? But what do I want? Olivia, Lena’s friend, is seen first talking about a boy she is dating. In teenage fashion, Lena asks if he is her boyfriend yet. Olivia is unsure: ‘I can’t make up my mind?’ Later in the documentary, in an extremely intimate scene, Olivia tells us that she is gay. “It was automatically assumed that I liked boys and I never told anyone otherwise.” College for her offers the opportunity to break away from certain moulds and from high school stigmas. We watch her blossom; by the end of the film we see a woman who is sure of herself, introducing us to her first love: a girl who came up to her in the library and told her that they were going to be friends. ‘I knew we would always be more than friends,’ Olivia tells us.

It is the strength of the documentary that there is such a scope of lived experience, communicated in the changing hairstyles, the new aesthetics, and the culmination of good and bad experiences forging new women, who through those tough and challenging phases become the people that they have decided to become. I think the struggles embedded in the transitions between stages in our lives, are bound up in the panic of feeling that with each year we should be becoming better, more adapted, wiser, more “functional.” In seeing this film, it becomes clear that the panic, that feeling of being lost and uncertain, is not in the slightest a failure, a missed opportunity or a waste of the time we have. It is rather the space that we take and use to grow into.

Watching Ginger’s transformation, too, reiterates how there is no one way to live. As she falls in love (‘We started off as friends, then not friends, then girlfriends’) her new self-confidence translates in the way she talks about her future and her relationship. Her girlfriend is preparing to move to Canada to study art, and the way in which she articulates what this will mean for her, for them, is another of the most sensitive and moving moments in the documentary. People come and they go and there is sadness in that but, as she says; ‘it makes me less unhappy that they’re going places, because I think I’m going places too.’ Ginger moves from feeling, as her younger sister Dusty said previously, like a leftover, into a person that she herself has created and affirmed. To see this is so uplifting and really drums into you that there is such a scope of experiences, of ways to do life. It reminded me that there is strength in self-belief and in loving others so fiercely and honestly that you nurture their dreams as they bolster yours. That as long as we surround ourselves with people who love us, we will find in that a power to trust ourselves when we are not sure where we are going or why we are going there.     

In watching the film recently, after nearly two years, I found myself reflecting on what I had learned in that time, what had changed? It also made me think about those friendships that had made me, about my family, about what I loved, the things I had kept and lost. It had me revelling and cringing at those messy and drunken teenage years, remembering how important it seemed to look the right way or get the boy to notice you. The conversations you would have at sixteen with your best friend. As young people, we are all ready to embark toward our destination as early as possible, so as to arrive there all the sooner. I am not sure that this feeling, this waiting to arrive at yourself, ever goes away completely I am not sure that we ever get anywhere and wish to stay there forever. In this, we are always travelling, evolving, moving along, both symbolically and in a very real sense.

A friend, who forever tries to see the world in all its zest and lusciousness, told me once that all of us – in our relationships with others, with ourselves, with our ambitions and our dreams – must allow a space in-between.  And this is what I take for those difficult times still to come, a lesson taken from those tricky, achey breaky teenage years. Give yourself space to expand and contract as a person, to not be afraid of going off-road or slowing down. Growing up is really just realising that you’re a project that’s never done. That life in its entirety is never as we imagined it in our teenage fantasies. Yet it is also ours to make of it what we want. One of the last moments in the film sees Lena about to set off travelling across America with the friends she’s met at college. In the taxi she tells us about a trip she took to the Metropolitan Museum. She had been looking at something when she got the feeling that she wanted to go to where she had always gone as a child: the Egyptian section.  I carry about with me what she said about looking at the objects in the exhibit: “something that was so every day for people…all of it was in the MET, all of it was art, all of it was meaningful and important. When I feel frustrated, when I feel nothing is meaningful, I tend to look inwards and think about myself and I realised that was completely the wrong thing to do. Even if everything in life goes terribly, even if I don’t make anything great, at least there is the world around me to just look at and see….” I find it, to this day, really soothing as a way of seeing the world that I always strive for.

I took a walk through Kelvingrove Park after an embarrassingly drunken night out, that had me questioning how much growing up I’d really done, and I thought about what that quote meant. I took time to list all the things I loved about the world, things I had collected while living within it. Take time to just realise that each of us are beings of infinite difference and variety. Believe that there is no set way to live, to love or to be. Growing up, growing, is just accumulating interests and falling in love as many times as we can; with people and places and moments, with words and music and peculiar things that lift your day. Learning to see the world as full of wonderful things, taking time to look at it. Only through this can we hope to find our place in it.

[Jude Mckechnie]

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