Cinema might have progressed beyond burying its gays but that doesn’t mean it can’t assign them a fate worse than death – lifelong pining. This is so prevalent in culture that it has its own term: queer yearning, an achey, all-consuming desire in which years of repression spill forth into a crush so forbidden, so unquenchable, that the only way to relieve its pains is by penetrating a peach.
Hurtling into this lineage is the Macedonian-Australian film-maker Goran Stolevski’s Of an Age, a pinwheeling, decade-spanning odyssey of teenage kicks and their prolonged aftershocks. And I mean hurtling: from the off, Stolevski’s direction possesses the same frantic kineticism as the Safdie brothers’, inducing all the stomach-churning anxiety of Uncut Gems – and then some.
Unlike that film, the stakes here are much lower, though it probably doesn’t seem that way to the adolescent pair at its heart: coltish, wide-eyed Nikola (Elias Anton, seen in Barracuda) and his friend Ebony (a spectacularly bratty Hattie Hook, in her feature debut). They’re meant to be competing in a local dance competition, except Ebony’s woken up on a beach somewhere in Melbourne after an all-night rager involving – in her own terms – only “a hyphen” of speed.
It is 1999, which means she has to scrounge for coins to make a desperate payphone call to Nikola, who is busy cutting shapes in his family garage. Also, it is 7.30am, and they’re waking up half the city with their anguished yowls down the line.
Before long, a plan is hatched involving Ebony’s older, cooler brother Adam (Thom Green, of Dance Academy) driving Nikola to find Ebony, the two men forming an unlikely search party. But something shifts on that drive: there’s an easiness that neither could have expected. They talk books, films, girls – until Adam lets slip, cannily, that his ex was a man. (He’s later shown listening to Tori Amos with a poster of Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in his bedroom, so the confession was probably unnecessary – but it’s sweet, nonetheless.)
Nothing comes of it in that instant – and nothing will come of it for a painfully long while – but Nikola’s thoughts are suddenly astir with an eddy of closeted desires. The camera sneaks glances at Adam’s muscles, just as Nikola does; this summer’s day seems to stretch endlessly into the horizon as they cross paths again and again, each time almost, but not quite, acting on their barely sublimated impulses.
Someone in the audience at opening night audibly whispered ‘yes!’ when the film finally caved to its characters’ urges
As if it’s not agonising enough, they only have 24 hours to make it happen, mirroring the temporal challenge set by another modern classic of queer yearning: Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, where two strangers share a brief, astounding encounter before they must go their separate ways. Adam is about to jet off to study in South America – but the expiration date of any possible romance only makes it all the more tempestuous.
For a film that begins so frenetically, any moment of stillness automatically contains a gut punch, whether it’s the sticky, sobering comedown of a crush or the debilitating awkwardness that being in love can entail. Golevski is a master of protracted tension: the car, so often a means of escape, can also become a silo of suffocation, as it does in one of Adam and Nikola’s many farewells. “It was really nice to meet you … I guess,” Nikola fumbles, birdsong cutting through a pregnant pause. “Have a safe and cool PhD.”
I won’t spoil the moment of sweet relief – suffice to say, someone in the audience at the opening-night screening at the Melbourne international film festival audibly whispered “yes!” when the film finally caved to its characters’ primal urges under a lightening sky. That moment imprints itself on to both parties’ minds, even when they reunite 11 years later. As the memory tumbles to the fore, so too does the pain of the intervening decade, the rift between teenage fantasy and the crushing weight of reality growing ever wider.
A bait-and-switch, then: what starts as a queer coming-of-age tale becomes a meditation on ageing itself; how choices made one fateful summer can linger well into adulthood. Of an Age’s bifurcated structure, split between 1999 and 2010, tempts us to discern each character’s evolution – or lack thereof; as adults, Ebony is still mouthy, Nikola is still a mess and Adam is still frustratingly out of reach.
In other hands, Of an Age could have been gimmicky or indulgent but Stolevski imbues his characters with such lived-in specificity that we can’t help but be swept away.
LGBTQI Films at the Rialto Cinemas, Sebastopol in February
Of An AgeOpens Friday, February 17th
Multiple Showings a Day