ellie and abbie (and ellie's dead aunt)
Film, 2020, 3.5 stars
Directed and Written by: Monica Zanetti
It feels like a long time between drinks for Australian queer cinema, especially films directed towards wlw audiences. For a country that spent a while at the forefront of independent cinema, for many years it felt like we went backwards. While Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie’s Dead Aunt) isn’t a spectacular entry into this queer canon, it is an earnest, sweet film to be applauded, almost as much for its “family friendliness” as anything else.
Recently, a friend of mine with a queer twelve year old asked me for a list of age appropriate queer films. I’ll admit, I struggled (but there’s been a bit of a renaissance lately). With queerness often revolving around sex rather than simply the lived experience of being a queer teenager, it can be difficult to find anything that might work for someone so young that could be watched with family without fear or embarrassment. Also, go back too far into the past and young people today might struggle to relate to it.
Ellie and Abbie falls into this rarified category. It’s sweet without being sickly, explores young queer issues on an emotional rather than sexual level, and features an interesting sidebar into Australian queer history explaining that the reason they can happily come out to their parents now is that those same parents were educated on queer issues by the people who came before and fought for that acceptance.
The gist here is that Ellie (delightfully relatable Sophie Hackshaw) is the daughter of single mother Erica (Marta Dusseldorp). She has just casually come out to her mum, and witnessed her having a slight freakout over it. She doesn’t (yet) get that her coming out triggers Erica on events from the past. Ellie also likes Abbie, and is trying to figure out a way to invite her to their year 12 formal. Ellie is visited by the ghost of her aunt Tara (Julia Billington) who died before she was born, who claims to be her fairy godmother (get it?). Tara gives Ellie advice which is gloriously old fashioned, but also timeless too, some of which goes hilariously awry.
Entirely unbeknownst to Ellie, there’s a whole family history around Tara’s death that haunts her mother and her mother’s best friend, Patty (Rachel House). Tara was a queer activist in the 80’s, and was tragically killed during a hit and run. Patty was Tara’s partner, and she and Erica have stayed close throughout the years, with Patty becoming like an aunt to Ellie, to take the place of the real aunt she lost.
It’s important to note that the tragedy of Tara’s death, and her involvement in the local history of the Sydney queer movement, isn’t played for laughs. It is quite harrowing, and Ellie and Erica have a huge fight scene about it, so this is a part of the film you may need to pre-watch before deciding whether it is OK for the young person in your life. Personally, I think it’s fine for kids who have slightly more mature heads.
We witness Ellie stumble from mistake to mistake, but like all great romcom heroines, she finally realises that all she needs to be is true to herself. Armed with this knowledge, she finally makes the right, authentic overtures to Abbie (who is tough on the outside but sensitive on the inside) to ensure the happy ending we all want there to be.
This was obviously a true labour of love for director Monica Zanetti, and she has not only a great eye for visual impact, but also understands the history of Australian teenage film. This really does have that lovely connection to teen films from the 80’s and 90’s, with a decidedly modern feel but significant winks and nods to the past. We get the point loud and clear. It’s important for Ellie to understand that the reason she’s able to come out to her family and dance with her girlfriend at her “prom” is because of people who fought for that equality, like her Aunt.
If I have one niggling doubt here it can be described in one word - balance. It’s a delicate act, pulling together the sweet, embarrassing, emotional, and funny moments of the film, while combining that with the serious messages the film is going for. I am not certain that they’ve quite gotten there in the editing suite. Also, if you’re going to put firepower like Marta Dusseldorp in a film, you need to rein it in or else she’s going to act the house down and unbalance your movie. Some of the mortifying teenage scenes between Ellie and Abbie also run overlong.
However, legend has it this was filmed in just ten days, including some guerrilla filming on a Sydney bus. With these limited budgets and timeframes the production values are incredible, the script was polished and real, and the acting just where it needed to be. It’s a solid, watchable, important Australian queer teen film that I think deserves to be seen by audiences everywhere, of all ages.