“Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)” is so gossamer-light and cute that you don’t realize how good it is until it punches you, right in the heart.
Monica Zanetti’s Aussie LGBTQ coming-of-age romance never lets us see her, or her cast, trying. It sort of stumbles along, every bit as awkward as its leading lady, teenaged and just-figured-out-her-sexuality Ellie (Sophie Hawkshaw). And then, voila, race and heart and romance make their way past the chuckles and take center stage.
Ellie is one of those super-into-school over-achievers, a model student. But she kind of blows the “big reveal” to her single mum (Marta Dusseldorp).
“I’m asking a girl in my class to the formal,” she blurts, scrambling to get the old family video camera ready for an Aussie imitation (frankly admitted) of the American social media mania for “The Big Gesture” prom date invitation. And as an afterthought? “I’m gay.“
When her mother smiles, sweet and gobsmacked, for a tad too long, Ellie isn’t having it.
“Moooooooom! You’re such a bigot!”
She’s not serious, and nothing about this comedy’s first two acts is. The silliest twist of all? Ellie is visited by “your FAIRY godmother. Get it? FAIRY?”
That’s ponytailed, jeans-jacketed Tara (Julia Billington), an enthusiastic ghost who relates some sort of “coming out” rule, that if you had a gay relative who died before you knew them, you qualified for this sort of help.
Tara is a walking, talking anachronism, a bit too ’80s for the Lady Gaga era. Ellie freaks out a bit about the whole “ghost” thing, and rolls her eyes at the over-eager godmother’s dated suggestions.
Need to figure out if a “girl plays for the same team?” Ask her about her favorite (Australian rules football, aka “footie” players). Need tips for that even more awkward “second conversation?”
“Who do you you prefer, k.d. lang or Melissa Etheridge.”
Ellie’s already figured out the girl she’ll ask, the sexy, confident and outspoken Abbie (Zoe Terakes, terrific). Terakes makes Abbie someone Ellie doesn’t have to sweat getting her “gaydar” license for. The way Abbie carries herself, the ease with which she chats up Ellie up when Miss Goody Goody crashes detention, just to be around the foul-mouthed object of her anonymous desire, tells her and us which “team” Abbie’s aligned with.
What Ellie can’t seem to do is get anything out of her mouth that sounds like an invitation or any other type of overture.
Abbie’s friendly “How’s your day going?” earns a nervous “You, too!”
“Ellie & Abbie” never seems more effortless than in the unforced awkwardness of their first chats — in detention, at lunch. The leads click, even if their characters can’t figure out how.
It never seems more contrived than in the over-eager-to-help Godmother Tara moments with a teen who doesn’t want her help. It’s a relief the picture isn’t solely about that.
But that character, Ellie’s mother and Ellie’s mother’s BFF (Rachel House of “Whale Rider,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” etc) pay serious dividends when Zanetti’s film turns on an Australian dime and finds its heart.
Zanetti sketches in “high school” in quick strokes, leaving little to distract us from her leading characters and the subtexts the adult supporting players are toting around with them. For a such a short movie, “Ellie & Abbie” never seems to pass by at more than a slow saunter.
But that beautifully disguises the fact that Zanetti’s packed a lot of living, a lot of growing up and plenty of heart and plot into a story that’s really “first romance” simple.
Rating: TV-14, adult themes, profanity
Cast: Sophie Hawkshaw, Zoe Terakes, Marta Dusseldorp, Rachel House and Julia Billington
Credits: Scripted and directed by Monica Zanetti. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:22