Movies filmed in close-up used to be a hallmark of television, then a medium with budgetary and screen-size restraints that begged for what actors came to term “neck up performances.” In the movies, the full-frame face can create an almost overwhelming intimacy whose effect is somewhat spoiled with overexposure.
That’s the way this shot and how it was used — sparingly — traditionally broke down, anyway.
“Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my CLOSE-up!”
These days, whole movies lean into this most naked form of film blocking, and not just the ones filmed on cell phones.
“Of an Age” is a quietly-intense whirlwind Australian romance about a teen ballroom dancer thrown together with a gay grad student in their hunt for one man’s sister, who happens to be the other’s wayward, trainwreck of a dance partner.
The second feature film of Macedonian/Australian filmmaker Goran Stolevski — “You Won’t Be Alone” was his first — it’s a talky, talking heads meeting of the minds love story, a gay couple’s day-long flirtation and hook-up, and its bittersweet memory over a decade later.
Elias Anton is Kol — short for Nikola — whom we meet frantically trying to fit everything into the day of the big ballroom dance finals. Only his partner, impulsive high school classmate Ebony (Hattie Hook) has spent the night before on a bender and is barely sure of where she is when she calls him.
The last person she wants to bring into this is her older brother, Adam (Thom Green). But that’s who picks Kol up, in full dance costume, to hunt down the wayward, half-wasted Ebony via station wagon.
It’s 1999, and Kol manically despairs at everything that the map of Melbourne and that Adam himself tell him, that there’s no way they can rescue her and get them to the finals in any sort of shape to compete. So saving the trainwreck-in-distress it is.
They struggle through this awkward introduction and through the cross-town drive and we learn that Adam loves Argentinian music — tangos — and Spanish linguistics, which is what he’s pursuing for his PhD. And we see, in the tiniest of facial details, each young man’s gaydar go off at the shared taste in music and the connection to somebody else who knows who Jorge Luis Borges is in brawny, beer-soaked Australia.
We learn that Kol is a Bosnian refugee, living with his mother and uncle, that Adam is planning on going abroad to finish his degree. We get a glimpse of each one’s dreams.
When they pickup bleary-eyed Ebony, blitzed and passed out in a phone booth, we see how oblivious she seems, how spoiled she obviously is and how devoted to her Kol remains, despite the self-destructive streak this pretty girl has indulged to derail their plans.
We’re allowed just enough room to wonder if there isn’t some guilt here, that there may be enough to her history with Kol to suggest he’s one thing this pretty young thing wanted but has figured out she cannot have, which is why she was loathe to let him meet her brother.
As the day drags into a nighttime party, Kol and Adam’s connection deepens, but is already taking on a bittersweet afterglow.
The third act is about the two men returning to Australia in 2010 and finding each other again as Ebony, ten years later, has transformed into a stunning if still spoiled brat bride for her wedding.
Stolevski’s dialogue has only a moment of two of flippant and bitchy, complimenting Ebony’s theatricality as pointing her towards becoming “the next Nicole Kidman.”
“I know she’s trash,” but no conversation with an Australian gay man is complete without lots of love for her holiness, Cate Blanchett. That lighter touch is sorely missed in the rest of the picture.
Any toxic masculinity here is limited to Kol’s Bosnian uncle and male relatives, who judge his disinterest in football as all the information they need.
Stolevski keeps his camera close and his story narrowly-focused on Adam and Kol, their chats and gently revealed status — Adam letting drop that his ex “won’t miss his cassettes,” Kol trying not to blurt out “It’s totally OK to be gay.”
The tests of any romance are basically the same, no matter what the sexuality of the lovers. Do we root for them as a couple? Do we feel the blows that each takes, in turn, as that romantic connection deepens and is tested?
Stolevski’s over-reliance on close-ups gives us detailed maps of each man’s dermatology, but tends to wash away the extra impact we’d feel about bigger moments of connection.
We’re meant to see this hook-up, coming at the end of the AIDS era and before Grindr, as something more meaningful than it feels. The age difference isn’t great, the maturity level is, which is why one takes the nature of this affair harder than the other.
If this was a heterosexual coupling, we’d shrug it all off as much ado about little, with the passage of time not really enhancing that cherished memory.
The big emotional moment is not really about them, only it is. And it’s on the dance floor the night of the wedding. Whatever its intent, its main effect is to show us what the preceding movie has lacked, a heartfelt, swooning and romantic love connection between two men “Of an Age” to truly appreciate that for the first time.
Rating: R for language throughout, sexual content and some drug use
Cast: Elias Anton, Thom Green and Hattie Hook
Credits: Scripted and directed by Goran Stolevski. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:40