THE STORY – During the summer of 1999, an 18-year-old amateur ballroom dancer has an unexpected and intense 24-hour romance with a friend’s older brother.
THE CAST – Elias Anton, Thom Green & Hattie Hook
THE TEAM – Goran Stolevski (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 99 Minutes
Romances need several things in order to work. Goran Stolevski’s sophomore feature “Of An Age” gets one of them so right that everything else almost doesn’t matter: The leads have incredible chemistry. It’s not apparent at first as Kol (Elias Anton) is very distracted as he gets into Adam’s (Thom Green) car: His best friend and dance partner Ebony (Hattie Hook) passed out at a remote beach the night before, and Kol only has an hour to meet Adam (the only one who has a car), get to the beach, and drive back to the town civic center to compete in the dance competition finals they’ve been practicing for. An impossible task, Adam tells him, and once Kol has surrendered to his fate and is able to relax a bit, the two can just sit in each other’s presence. Adam has been at University, so despite being Ebony’s elder brother, he doesn’t really know Kol. Even if you didn’t know what “Of An Age” is about, you’d figure it out pretty quickly, as the chemistry between Anton and Green is palpable. It begins as tension so thick you could cut it with a knife, and we watch as it evolves into something else over one day and night.
Watching these two young men fall for each other and create a bond throughout their time together is one of the most beautiful things you’ll see in a cinema this winter. They spend most of their time in a car, a very intimate space made even more personal by the use of the box-like academy framing, which almost forces people to be on top of each other if they are to share the screen. The flip side of that, of course, is that because of the smaller frame, the characters are just as often isolated within it, and Stolevski weaponizes these two modes for maximum impact. At first, Kol and Adam spend their time in solo shots, but as they become closer, they occupy more space in the other’s shots until a real moment of connection comes along. At first, we see each in extreme close-up; their feelings are all but bursting forth out of their bodies. But eventually, they evenly share the frame, and it plays like a revelation, two people finally seeing each other for who they really are. But this is late-90s Melbourne, and the fear of ostracization from coming out is strong. Adam may have been able to escape it at University, but Kol is still in the viper’s den of high school, where fitting in is everything. Kol is also the son of Serbian immigrants, which adds extra pressure. But just knowing Adam for one day (a house party and late-night drive come after their road trip to Ebony) is enough to rock Kol’s world. When the two meet again ten years later for Ebony’s wedding, he’s a different person, even if the butterflies come rushing back the second he sees Adam again.
And here is where we must address one of the things that romances need in order to work that “Of An Age” doesn’t get so right: The ending. The time jump works at first. Anton and Green do wonderful work layering the backstory of how Kol and Adam have changed without words (Stolevski’s screenplay knows that the specifics are best left unspoken). It’s particularly remarkable to see Kol looking so sure of himself instead of the awkward teen who didn’t know what to do with himself. For a long stretch, the film becomes something else, an exploration of what it feels like to come back “home” after you’ve outgrown it when “home” has become a place haunted by the ghost of who you used to be. The film becomes incredibly introspective in its second half, whereas the first half was much more about connecting with others. The plot doesn’t go exactly where you might expect, though, with things building to a moment that deflates all too quickly before abruptly cutting itself off to end. It’s one of the most dispiriting cuts to end credits in recent memory, as up until that point, everything was working beautifully. Stolevski and cinematographer Matthew Chuang even manage to make some swooningly romantic images out of the film’s generic indie style, and the cinematography and editing are perfectly attuned to the excellent performances. The pacing keeps everything moving, so it never feels slow, even though it’s a relatively subtle film. And then, right at the finish line, the film ultimately stumbles. The ending is so abrupt that it’s startling, a knife through your heart. It’s the one false note the film plays, and it’s the very last one. How upsetting!
But that’s the funny thing about films. They have a way of wriggling their way into your brain and worming around until they’ve become something else, even though they haven’t changed at all. Turning over “Of An Age” in one’s mind afterward, one realizes a hard, beautiful truth: It was never a romance but a coming-of-age story. A story about learning to love oneself first. What Goran Stolevski has done so beautifully with this film is to articulate the uniquely queer experience of meeting your first queer person, the first person who is just like you, the first person who understands you in a way no one else you know does, and whom you understand deeper than anyone else you know. The unspeakably profound bond you have is love, but it is also so much bigger than that. Why should a queer romance or coming-of-age film be exactly like heterosexual ones when our experiences are so different? “Of An Age” may be the first film of its kind, the first to speak so directly to this part of the queer experience. It does so beautifully, exuding a warmth of spirit that can only come from filmmakers who are deeply invested in the story they’re telling. The timing of that final cut still rankles, but at least it’s in service of telling this story through a new, unique lens. The film falls frustratingly short of the perfection its first half promises, but it’s still something pretty special.