Writer-director Goran Stolevski’s achingly romantic Of An Age opened Sydney’s 30th Mardi Gras Film Festival last night ahead of its US theatrical release on Friday, February 17th.
Set in Melbourne’s northern suburbs in the summer of 1999, the film quickly establishes a riveting, frenetic pace as high school senior Nikola “Kol” Denić (Elias Anton) receives a distressed early morning phone call from his best (well, only) friend Ebony (a fantastic Hattie Hook making her screen debut). She’s meant to be his dance partner, performing a rumba in competitive finals beginning in an hour or so, but has woken up on an unfamiliar beach with no money, no shoes, and only a hazy recollection of how she got there. Brilliantly edited by Stolevski, it’s an expertly tense sequence with Safdie brothers levels of frantic, as it cuts back and forth between a close to hysterical Ebony and a distraught Kol intensely trying to work out which far away beach she’s found herself on. Anton brings a captivatingly frenzied energy to Kol, who’s clearly invested so much into preparing for the dance. Before he’s interrupted by Ebony’s call, we see him practicing his side of the routine alone his garage dressed only in short shorts. The calm before the storm, and a chance to see Kol comfortable in his own skin, free from having to present himself to anyone around him.
Kol is desperate to retrieve Ebony and get her to the hall in costume, but the long drive west to the beach she’s on means he’s impossibly against the clock. All of this unease comes with Kol as he gets into the car of Ebony’s handsome, easygoing, and self-assured older brother Adam (Thom Green). After the rush, it’s as if time stands still once Kol meets Adam, and the vital importance of the dance finals gradually falls away as the enticing connection between them builds. In one of my favourite, deceptively simple sections of the film, the two break the ice and bond over literature, movies, travel, and music. As they listen to the soundtrack of Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together and discover one another, the pink elephant in the car is that they’re both gay. The older Adam, in his early to mid-twenties, has already had boyfriends, one he’s just split up with ahead of his move to Argentina the following day to start a PhD. While the tightly-wound and anxiously closeted Kol—who has some shockingly bad map reading skills—is on the cusp of his nineteenth birthday, three weeks away on New Year’s Day 2000, if the millennium bug doesn’t cause the apocalypse that is. As Kol’s guard drops, we see him at ease with himself, but as soon as Adam mentions that his ex was male—just as Ebony enters the car—Kol lowers his voice and attempts to butch up. This is made all the less convincing as he sports his rhinestone-adorned Strictly Ballroom realness competition outfit, with its plunging neckline and glittering collar.
Cinematographer Matthew Chuang lingers in some gorgeous details with POV shots that evoke Kol drinking in the beauty of Adam’s arm resting on his leg, and later on his shirtless muscular tattooed torso as he drives. It’s visceral and as the sexual tension rises we can practically smell the pheromones, as Kol becomes entranced by Adam, who in turn is fascinated by Kol. The 4:3 ratio means that the actors faces fill the screen in close-ups, heightening the sense of intimacy building between them, and allowing us to read so much in their eyes.
The way that they’re each drawn to the other goes far beyond physical attraction and Stolevski is adept at articulating something that feels uniquely queer, as each man recognizes something in the other that makes them feel less alone. Adam sees the thinly shrouded queerness radiating from the younger man, the beauty in what Kol has been striving to hide and encounters aspects of who he used to be himself. Along with Adam’s playful, teasing flirtation, he’s warm, gentle, and kind with Kol. Despite the difference in age and experience there’s no hint of predatoriness, instead there’s queer mentorship in Adam simply being open and loving. Meanwhile, Kol sees in Adam something he hopes to become, not only a young gay man who has fully accepted himself, but a sophisticated one who has left bogan small-minded suburbia behind him, along with the restrictions of family life. All of this is in the air when they finally kiss; the passion, the recognition, the relief, the longing, the caring.
Although there’s so much going on between Kol and Adam, Stolevski wisely trusts his audience to pick up on it rather than signposting it. Anton and Green deliver natural and delicate work that’s emotionally potent and deeply moving. Their performances are all the more impressive for playing their characters a decade later in the final part of the film as they reencounter one another, poignantly conveying the potentially lifelong, monumental impact that even the briefest of encounters can have on us. Both actors carries that elapsed time in their energy and physicality as the connection between the men is explored all those years on. Kol is particularly impressive as the older version of the character, tapping into Kol’s frustration, disappointment, and raw emotion. Utterly invested in these characters, I also found myself transported back to feelings of wrestling with coming out to myself, and the liberation and bliss of encountering a slightly older man, more comfortable in their queerness.
Part of a Serbian immigrant family, Kol’s father has passed away and he now lives with his mother at his uncle’s house, where men are expected to behave like men—watch football and drink beer—and where he’s teased for what he’s wearing and for not being masculine enough. Outside his home, as Kol navigates his day we see him encounter casual racism and xenophobia in aggressions, both micro and macro, including from school mean girl Coral (Grace Graznak) who throws in some homophobia too. It’s an aspect of the narrative, handled with subtlety and nuance, that breathes new life into the queer coming of age aspect of the film.
Stolevski revels in small things that feel so significant when you’re smitten with someone, such as the intimacy and eroticism of Kol wearing Adam’s clothes or encountering the music he likes. When Adam mentions his love for Tori Amos at one point, Kol hasn’t heard of her and asks if she’s “one of those gay divas like Madonna or Barbra Streisand?” Along with its emotional power, Of An Age is rich with humour, which often has a distinctly Australian flavour. There’s unforced situational and behavioural comedy, but also some really funny moment in the dialogue too, some of which feel improvised. When Kol attempts to convince Ebony to get back in the car and praises her questionable acting talent, telling her that she’s going to be the next Nicole Kidman, only to be told “she’s fucking trash”, so Kol shifts to Cate Blanchett as a comparison instead (who was nominated for her first Oscar for Elizabeth earlier that year).
While valid comparisons will be made to Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, in its approach to exploring the passing of time and gay love, Of An Age put me in mind of Lucio Castro’s gorgeous End of the Century (Fin de siglo).
This is a devastatingly bittersweet, tender film of breathtaking, unforced emotional intensity. It’s an instant queer classic that broke then healed me in ways I didn’t know I needed to be healed. As well as entertaining and transporting us, some films can feel like therapy, when we truly see aspects of our own lives reflected back to us in such meaningful work like Stolevski’s that truly has something to say about life.
By James Kleinmann
Focus Features will release Of An Age in US theaters on Friday, February 17th, 2023, head here for local showtimes. It is the opening night selection of Queer Screen’s 30th Mardi Gras Film Festival, screening Wednesday February 15th, 2023 followed by a Q&A with Goran Stolevski, Elias Anton, Thom Green, and Hattie Hook.