Sunflower opens with two sharp images. The first, follows a young man walking through fields of the titular flowers in bloom. The second, focuses on a group of school boys beating up a gay kid on a deserted playground. It is unclear whether they are the same person. This coming out story isn’t some sugarcoated fantasy, but an honest account of what it’s like to open up about your queer sexuality in the Australian suburbs.
Leo (Liam Mollica) is a 17-year-old who knows that he’s attracted to boys, but everyone around him assumes he’s straight. His friends are pushing him toward an attractive girl, Monique (Olivia Fildes), who likes him and wants to have sex, but as hard as he tries, Leo can’t escape the dreams of school mates changing in the locker room and being manhandled by his best friend Boof (Luke J. Morgan).
Writer-director Gabriel Carrubba does an excellent job of balancing the sweet and sour moments of teen life. Moments of teenage cruelty are juxtaposed with scenes of beauty and joy. Martine Wolff’s cinematography adds a dream-like layer to much of the film, especially the romantic moments. It invitingly and warmly holds the audience’s hand as if to let us know that we are looking back at events that have been lived through already, and everything will turn out alright.
Mollica gives us a convincing Leo, torn between the high highs and low lows of youth. Moments of struggle, like when he tries to jerk off while thinking about Monique, only to give in and think of boys instead, demonstrate his personal dilemmas. He can’t and won’t admit he’s gay, not even to himself. Luke J. Morgan makes Boof an instantly likable and recognizable Australian teen, full of life and bravado. You can see why Leo is attracted to him while also feeling repelled by elements of his personality. When we meet his older, abusive brother Derek (played by Elias Anton, who recently starred in Of An Age) you know Boof has his own issues to deal with. Most importantly both Leo and Boof act like genuine school kids. Part child, part adult they are immature and ridiculous, but also deep wells of emotion.
Nostalgic yet sobering, Sunflower manages to play with all the disparate tones of teenage life. It can be deeply meditative and simultaneously daft. There’s a sense of authenticity that gives the film life and this is a vibrant showcase for the talent both in front of and behind the camera, not the least of which is the filmmaker himself.
By Chad Armstrong
Sunflower plays the 33rd annual Melbourne Queer Film Festival on Thursday, November 16th, 2023. Screening followed by Q&A with director Gabriel Carruba and producer Zane Borg. MQFF33 runs November 9th-19th. For the full lineup and to purchase tickets head to mqff.com.au.