Why this Aussie film about 90s suburbia has audiences raving

Director Goran Stolevski knows it’s tempting to read his second feature film, Of An Age, as semi-autobiographical, though he says he actually has more in common with the witches in his first film, folk-horror You Won’t Be Alone.

“There’s a common confusion that Kol [the lead in Of An Age] is me,” he says, smirking, “Because we’re both ethnic gays and apparently all ethnic gays just have to be each other and there’s no other option.”

Of an Age stars Hattie Hook, Thom Green and Elias Anton.Credit:Ben King

That’s not to say the film doesn’t pull from his experiences. The Macedonian-Australian writer-director grew up in Melbourne’s outer suburbs in the 1990s, just like Kol, 17, the film’s Serbian-Australian lead, played by Barracuda’s Elias Anton.

Unlike Kol, Stolevski was “militantly queer” and out in high school, though both shared a deep sense of isolation from the culture and world around them, finding solace in art: “I grew up thinking the only feelings that were valid were the feelings that Isabelle Huppert was experiencing, and I couldn’t ever possibly aspire to that.”

Of An Age arrives in Australian cinemas on March 23 (though preview screenings are being held from this week), a protracted six months after premiering at and opening MIFF last August. Since then, it’s done the festival circuit across Australia, going on to win CinefestOz’s $100,000 Best Film Award, as well as Queer Screen’s Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at this year’s Mardi Gras Film Festival, clearly connecting with home audiences too.

Elias Anton (left) and Thom Green in Of An Age.Credit:Focus Features via AP

Wistful, funny and full of raw feeling, Of An Age renders suburban ’90s Melbourne into a site of romance and longing. It also offers Australia its own entry to a potent sub-genre of queer cinema, the fleeting encounter that tears you open and, potentially, apart (recent entries include Weekend, Call Me By Your Name, End of the Century).

“I’m just happy to know that we can tell a Melbourne story and the international market really resonates with it,” says Anton, reflecting on the film’s warm US opening and critical acclaim.

While the slang, sun-kissed scenes and overstuffed suburban homes will all ring true, what makes the film distinctly Australian is a geographical-cultural sense of disconnection – Stolevski’s sense of life happening elsewhere, heightened by queerness.

“As much as I feel it’s a universal love story, it’s about how the queer experience shapes you, [especially] before technology made things a lot easier in terms of finding people who are like you,” says Stolevski.

“There was a special kind of isolation that happened as a queer kid … But [that] loneliness shapes you inevitably, whether or not you want to admit it to yourself – and it took me many years before I could. The flip side is [that] when you find someone queer – even outside of a romantic context — they understand you in a deep and specific way.”

“I’m just happy to know that we can tell a Melbourne story and the international market really resonates with it,” says Elias Anton, who plays Kol.Credit:Roadshow Films

Of An Age takes time to build to that connection. Kol is preparing for a dance final when his competition partner Ebony (newcomer and comedic gold Hattie Hook) calls frantic from a payphone, having woken up on an unknown beach after a big night out. He hops in her older brother Adam’s (Thom Green of Dance Academy) car — over the long drive, Kol is awakened to a world of possibilities. Not just sexual chemistry, but another way of living.

“Adam helps shape Kol’s future,” says Green. “Not 100 per cent, but he’s that guiding influence.”

Adam is unlike anyone in Kol’s life, a cultured 25-year-old PhD candidate who waxes lyrical about music and film — he’s even about to move to Buenos Aires inspired by Happy Together, Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 longing-filled queer romance. Green says he struggled at first with Adam’s slightly pretentious side, where he pops on the Happy Together soundtrack tape in the car and adorns his bedroom with an Almodovar poster.

“Goran and I came to a compromise,” says Green, “where it wasn’t so much arrogance as much as Adam saw himself in Kol. At parts the nurturing came through, and at parts the attraction came through.”

“With all those references, in that time and place, I think it’s also an armour you build for yourself,” adds Stolevski, who himself at 14 was renting Bergman films from Video Ezy Thomastown. “It’s about ‘I know about the bigger world so I don’t have to be defined by what’s here’. Partly it’s a point of connection [Adam’s] trying to make, but also partly, he’s [saying] ‘there’s more for me out there’.”

While we might laugh when we see Adam listen intently to Tori Amos, to Kol this handsome man is assured, electric, and likely one of the first openly gay men he’s ever met. Adam’s a lifeline Kol didn’t know he needed, but it’s not one-sided: Adam is equally intrigued by Kol, who is stuck between an impulse to fit in and a desire for more.

Flirting with no guidelines for how to do so, Kol teeters on the edge of excitement and fear: Anton conveys that uncontrollable rush of emotions so well, while cinematographer Matthew Cheung stays close via a square ratio and shooting largely inside the car, inviting us right into their private oasis.

It’s impossible not to be swept away. But 1999 is just one section of the film: inspired by Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, Of An Age’s last 25 minutes are set in 2010, as Kol and Adam reunite at Ebony’s wedding.

“When we were talking about the role,” Stolevski says, “[Anton] was like, ‘Oh, it’s like Kol is this kid who’s never done drugs, and the first hit is pure heroin’. He’s never had love or romance, then he has it in his super-intense way.”

“And he’s constantly chasing the dragon,” adds Anton.

As they circle each other, an oppressive decade of ‘what ifs’ looms over them, a romantic ideal potentially too cinematic for them to move on from. Their shared past becomes a treasured reference point – a piece of armour that arguably restricts Kol more than it protects him.

Where some might see this as tragic, Stolevski has a more romantic view. “There’s a question in the film: ‘Was that feeling worth it, holding onto it for 10 years?’ To me, it’s absolutely f—ing worth it.”

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