Director Goran Stolevski has given his sophomore feature, Of an Age, a suitably malleable title that effectively expresses the various thematic and emotional preoccupations guiding the film. Most identifiably, it’s a coming-of-age story of a sort, or perhaps more accurately a coming-of-sexuality story. The film opens — and mostly remains — in 1999 Melbourne. Kol (Elias Anton), a 17-year-old Serbian immigrant, receives a frantic phone call from dance partner and friend, Ebony. She’s woken up on an unfamiliar beach, waterlogged, down one shoe, and without any idea how to make it home for the duo’s dance final in two hours. She’s a swirling mess of pure hysteria, and Stolevski stretches this opening sequence — of Kol’s scrambling to find and retrieve Ebony and of her barely discernible screeches into a grimy payphone — to its breaking point, opening his film into a profound state of anxiety (foreshadowing Kol’s inner turmoil). Ebony, who desperately doesn’t want her mother to find out about her late-night partying — she quickly dismisses the idea that the bump of speed she took was the cause of the chaos; “like half a line, a hyphen” — tells Kol to discreetly get ahold of her older brother Adam, who has a car. But by the time Adam picks up Kol, any hope the dancers have of making it to their final has evaporated, and the film settles into a much gentle register.
It’s an effective, if a bit heavy-handed, subversion of the film that is to follow, which takes inspiration and cribs influence from the woozy rhythms and delicate romances of films like Weekend and Moonlight (more on those later), as well as Wong Kar-wai’s filmography (the director is even explicitly referenced). The director’s visual style here reflects that pivot, forgoing the more Malickian ethereality and formal experimentation of debut You Won’t Be Alone and its existential inclinations, and adopting a more intimate visual palette, captured in tight, dense compositions and shot in a lot of low light. This formal character really begins to assert itself during Adam and Kol’s extended driving sequence to pick up Ebony, one which finds the two young men getting to know each other. Adam, a handful of years or so older than Kol, is moving to Argentina the next day to pursue a Ph.D. in linguistics, while Kol opens up about his conservative family and struggles with high school life. This bit of bonding is mostly endearing, although it also reflects Of an Age’s worst tendencies: namely, the rather visible formula beneath the film’s lo-fi, swoony textures. The two bond over their talk of classic literature, establish a former-outsider-comforts- current-outsider dynamic, and embark on that favorite structure of romantic dramas: the 24-hour whirlwind (see again Weekend, but also the Before trilogy and Medicine for Melancholy for obvious aesthetic, emotional, and structural reference points here). And when the closeted Kol finds out that Adam is gay, he immediately overcompensates by dropping “bro” into every sentence. We’ve seen this all before.
Of course, this is only a token act of resistance on Kol’s part, and the two soon become physically and emotionally intimate across the day’s events. But Of an Age is much more than simply a “coming out” film; Stolevski clearly understands the reductive and regressive nature of such representation. Soon moving away from the familiar narrative beats that give pause in the early going, the film begins to lean more into another functional purpose of its title: capturing a specific time and place, and specifically the prevailing cultural attitudes toward queerness. Stolevski litters the early going with obvious signifiers of the 1990s — references to dial-up Internet, cheap chain necklaces, car rides soundtracked by cassette tapes (if you want further evidence of the film’s particular aesthetic character, note that the diegetic music is mostly French tunes while myriad scenes are set to the non-diegetic likes of Live and The Cardigans — recollecting a time when even the most progressive presentation of gay characters in the larger culture and media reduced them to periphery types and caricatures, and that’s when they weren’t being used in service of bad-taste gags. This isn’t mere affectation or period detail or autoficitive authenticity, however, but rather a carefully considered texturing that allows Of an Age to earn its pathos. For Kol, who is just now contending with his own identity, the tragedy of the day’s close feels real because of its time and place; the future is always murky, but it’s now murkier for him than it was 24 hours ago. (When Kol is first saying goodbye to Adam, without knowing they’ll see each other again, he offers a pitiful: “Have a safe and cool Ph.D.”) And then there are the potential power disparities at play with the older Adam entreating the impressionable Kol, which to this day an embarrassing percentage of society might point to as evidence of the predatory nature of all non-straight, gender-binary people. Stolevski instead uses that tension to emphasize the insidious power dynamics of all interpersonal relationships rooted in social mores (most reflected in Ebony, who consistently mistreats her outcast “friend”), which are historically slow-moving and bigotry-spawning.
All of this leads to the film’s coda-esque final 20 minutes, which skips ahead 11 years, and finds both Kol and Adam returning for Ebony’s wedding. Immediately established here are the social shifts with regard to queerness: Kol, who in 1999 was constantly called a “homo” by his peers, is now living openly, and as such is the guest du jour for the bridesmaids, who all demand a dance and ask about his desire to marry. The treatment is kinder, but no less ambivalent of his interiority; their allegiance is to cultural whims. But this is also where Stolevski drops what is essentially the film’s thesis, and it’s an emotional doozy. Kol, pained by what he has learned of Adam’s life since they last saw each other all those years ago, attempts to leave the wedding early. Adam catches up with him, and Kol delivers a monologue of both profound nuance and power (Moonlight hat tip right here) about still feeling captive to the emotions of one day; joy at the experience, grief at its loss, and something more confused at
its permanent affixment in his life. Despite the obvious touchstone-heavy nature of both this climactic scene and the film as a whole, Stolevski is smart to cut his romance with a necessary thorniness, understanding how the inherent inequity of connection and emotional experience can both shape and damage us, and the ways a life can directly flower from such formative moments. We can be emboldened by them, yes, but also forever trapped by their webs. It’s a moving bit of realism too infrequently sutured into films of a romantic bent, astute in its psychological acuity and moving in its raw emotionality. And it’s this quality, this commitment to imbuing familiar parts with surprising depth and grace, that allows Stolevski’s films to stand apart. The director is two films into his career and we’re yet to see a work unburdened of palpable influence, but he’s still outpacing most while still honing in on his own distinctive voice.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 7.