Saturday, 4 March 2017

Teenage Kicks (2017) - Movie Review

With the Mardi Gras Film Festival well under way around here, it’s indie LGBT time again! You know, I’d probably be a lot more enthused about this if I hadn’t already discussed several rather taxing and emotional films over the last few days. Given my history with this sub-genre, with films like Drown, I could already feel the burnout before I even set foot in the theatre. But it’s like I keep saying around these parts: I welcome the chance to be proven wrong. Of course, when I usually say that, it’s in the sense that I don’t like it when my intense pessimism involving certain releases turns out to be founded: It may be therapeutic to a degree but that I doesn’t mean that I actually enjoy watching crap movies. This time around, “being proven wrong” turns out to be accurate in a completely different way. Let’s dive right in and I’ll explain how.

The plot: Miklós (Miles Szanto), an Australian teenager, suffers a deep personal tragedy with the death of his brother Tomi (Nadim Kobeissi). As he struggles to cope with living in his shadow, he also finds himself coming to terms with his own sexuality, specifically with how it relates to his best friend Dan (Daniel Webber). Through a series of sexually-tinged events proceeding his bereavement, we see Miklós begin to grow comfortable with his own place in the world… even if said realization comes about through far-from-comfortable means.

The cast here is… adequate. When a film’s gallery of actors registers this lightly with me after the credits have rolled, I would usually equate this to boring performances. That is definitely not the case, though, as everyone here is perfectly fine. Szanto channels the jarring emotions and emotional turns he is given quite well, Webber makes for a good second-half of the main bromance, Charlotte Best as Dan’s girlfriend Phaedra fits into the verging-on-creepy role she’s given, Kobeissi gives a nice and comforting air to his flashback scenes with Szanto, and Anni Finsterer, Lech Mackiewicz and Tony Poli as Miklós’ family do well at bringing forward many of the film’s main conflicts. I specify “adequate” though because, while everyone here is fine, no-one really stands out all that much as something amazing, or at the very least as a key selling point of the work itself.

Given the very thick presence of marijuana smoke throughout the film, I guess this could be considered a stoner drama alongside being a gay coming-of-age story. I specify this because, with that addition to the tone of the work, it’s actually pretty engaging. The way the film casually shows its use, alongside quite a few harder drugs, is rather refreshing and makes it distinct from the usual weed-puffing fare where it is usually a gateway for comedy. Here, it’s more a gateway for conversation and contemplation, which in this makes sense. The way it’s shown to connect Miklós with both his brother and his best friend gives it some well-needed normalisation, and even the moments involving the hard stuff are framed as being rather alienating and dangerous. Of course, that feeling of this being a stoner film applies to the film’s approach to tone… and not for any of the good reasons.

There’s a very haphazard and almost goofy tone throughout the film, which kind of sucks considering this is meant to be a thematic portrait of grief and coming to terms with one’s sexuality. I get that part of that story for a lot of people involves certain idiosyncrasies that appear odd to outside observers, but quite frankly I can’t imagine these sorts of events being treated seriously even by the people involved. From the sexual non-sequiturs, some of which add Freudian tones to the story that… let’s just say are rather troubling, to the brief heroin binge Miklós goes through in the third act that is never referenced again (immediately kicking heroin off-screen; this film and reality don’t meet as often as it would like), to the fact that these and the majority of events we see feel really disjointed when slotted next to each other. I’ve discussed indie films before that had a rather business-casual approach to their plotting, but this is a little too off-beat to really see anything resembling cohesion.

Then we get into the relationship themes of the story and things take a turn for the even weirder. Now, admittedly, the film does have a decent through-line involving male role models and how they play into a person’s development as a teenager, seen here through Miklós’ relationship with his father, uncle and of course his deceased brother. Hell, as weird as some of the moments may get between him and Dan (including a sequence that I can literally only describe as ‘hate-fucking’), they still make a rather cute couple all things considered. Miklós’ relationships with the women in his life, on the other hand, don’t work so well. It feels like an internalisation of the stereotypical claptrap most homophobes spout out about how people’s sexuality is just down to them hating or being on bad terms with the opposite sex. I’m sure the more Internet-savvy of my readers will have seen some variation of “Dykes just hate men” at some point.

His relationship with his mother is fractured, not to mention inconsistent, him and Dan’s girlfriend have easily the biggest out-of-nowhere bit of eroticism in the entire film (that includes the scene where Miklós is picked up by two guys to take part in a sex webcam show which, again, feels out of place) and his connection with Tommy’s pregnant girlfriend is… I don’t even know how to describe their interactions. Bereavement can only excuse so much, especially when the film is this difficult to take at its word as it is, and the whole “brother as a replacement for the dead” thing doesn’t work so well here as it does in certain other scenes. Then again, this includes one where the importance of Miklós wearing his brother’s jacket is literally told out loud to the audience, so make of that what you will.

All in all, if this was simply a pot-tinged take on the LGBT coming-of-age story, with all the comedic trappings that come with it, I would probably be able to gel with this a lot more thanks to the acting and the specificity of the writing that makes the story feel genuine. However, because a lot of the moments contained within waver so wildly between dramatic and funny, some involving actions that are far too squicky to register as anything other than troubling, it’s difficult to take this film seriously at face value. Credit where it’s due as this is certainly one of the more unique films I’ve seen in cinemas of late, but maybe that’s not such a good thing.

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