Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) is a breezy high-school comedy about the will they/won’t they romance between two gay schoolkids. Set in the here and now but also in the there and then, it tries to square a circle and gets most of the way there.
Gay kids? Once upon a not so long ago that would have set the attack dogs of the media off on one of their jags but, though Australian writer/director Monica Zanetti struggled to raise the cash to get this adaptation of her successful play made, here it is, eventually, a testament to what the film is actually all about. Things have changed. Though battles are still to be fought, much ground has been gained.
Enough ground, in fact, that the whole film can mostly play out as a teen-crush movie, rather than a coming-out movie, kicking off with Ellie (Sophie Hawkshaw) announcing to her mother that she is gay – just like that, in the way teenagers might announce that they wish to be vegan – something her mother (Marta Dusseldorp) hadn’t seen coming, in spite of the fact that her best friend Patty (Rachel House) is an out gay woman, as was her sister Tara (Julia Billington), once Patty’s partner but now singing in the gay choir invisible.
Big breath. Two plot wheels start spinning. Can nice, well behaved school captain Ellie, having so matter-of-factly outed herself to her mother, climb a bigger hill and get cool, blunt rebel classmate Abbie (Zoe Terakes) to go to the formal with her (as Aussies call the prom, a helpful line tells us)? And, out of nowhere, enter Ellie’s dead aunt, Tara, in visible-only-to-Ellie Blithe Spirit style, to offer advice on negotiating queerdom.
Is Abbie even gay? The question seems barely worth asking but the film squeezes some comedy mileage out of Tara’s suggestion that Ellie ask Abbie who her favourite AFL player is, this having been a surefire litmus test in the 1980s.
In fact the aunt’s go-girl, affirmatory advice turns out to be mostly worthless, kd lang not having quite the cut-through she once did, Tara having no knowledge of what Facebook or a podcast is, and so on, though Julie Billington bats away gamely at a character who is introduced as a major plot component (she feature in the title, after all) only to be put on the back burner for much of the film’s running time. Ellie, in any case, prefers to get her life-coaching encouragement from YouTube.
But Tara, the dead aunt, is still a useful character, if only because she opens up a dialogue with the recent past, and allows the film a cake-and-eat-it approach.
In days of yore, films about gay people used to be about the fact of their gayness, most often expressed as the struggle to come out. Now a gay character is most often a character who is gay – sexuality is not what their personality nor the story is about, it’s just a part of the jigsaw. Tara reminds us that things are so much different now than they were 30 or 40 years ago, all the while applauding the struggle it took to make that change happen. Tara, it turns out, was no 1980s wallflower but an activist who fought to have her sexuality recognised, so her gay niece could, almost paradoxically, have hers ignored.
The film’s sweetness of tone and loose performances help to broaden the appeal, which is to a teenage audience (of whatever sexual orientation) – the getting-it-off-my-chest speeches, the tight focus on likeable leads Hawkshaw and Terakes, the fact that all older people are authority figures (parents, teachers, aunts etc).
If it sounds like this is a history lesson in the fight for LGBT acceptance, that’s because I’ve over-emphasised the messaging at the expense of the packaging – Zanetti’s skill is to write and direct a high-school rom-com that works on its own terms, love and disappointment being no respecters of borders of sexuality.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021