Giant Little Ones (2018) revolves around acts of cycling: past sprawling McMansions and manicured hedges, to and from friends’ houses, or down warping, liquid boulevards on drunken nights. Our teenage protagonist Franky (Josh Wiggins) pedals before he walks, and his bike becomes a vessel of catharsis, betrayal, doubt, deliverance — all the melodrama that a coming-of-age necessitates.
On two wheels, Franky feels limitless. Even in the film’s darkest moments, the bike provides levity, a reprieve from the conflict unfurling around him after an alcohol-fuelled fumble with his childhood friend Ballas (Darren Mann). Their moment of (mostly unseen) midnight sexual experimentation is quick and hurried, but the weeks following it stretch into a long, terse silence as both boys grapple with their own sexualities amidst whispered rumours down high school corridors and dinner table conversations with understanding, but perplexed parents. In one excruciating scene, Ballas stands by idly as Franky defends a gay classmate in a locker room brawl. Paralysed with fear of being outed, he ignores his moral instincts and walks away, silently.
Instances like these distinguish the film from a class of teen queer cinema that’s otherwise so averse to subtlety. By lingering on this anxious aftermath rather than glossing over it in favour of a perfect resolution, Giant Little Ones takes a necessary and defiant step into a post-Love, Simon (2018) cinema, which acknowledges the need for queer rom-com fantasies to exist, but that we should also expect more: more nuance, more experiences, more space for failures and loose ends.
Unlike its blockbuster predecessor, the homophobia in Giant Little Ones is a strange, nebulous beast. In Love, Simon, Simon’s plight is confined to a casual schoolyard iciness — a quickly rectified falling-out with friends that stems from the actions of a nefarious, loose-lipped peer. He’s able to overcome external pressures to reap his rewards — namely, a fairytale kiss on a Ferris wheel and a heightened plane of self-assurance. He’s happy! He’s confident! He drives off into the distance with no less than five perfectly dewy iced coffees!
Franky and Ballas’ fears, on the other hand, are internalised, manifesting as guilt, hatred, and deep, unabated shame. They do everything in their power to flee from such emotions. Despite his complicitness in their encounter, Ballas publicly accuses Franky of coming onto him in a desperate attempt to avoid his own queerness. Meanwhile, Franky steals and disassembles Ballas’ bike, and rapidly enters into a relationship with Ballas’s sister — one so achingly heterosexual it even includes its own Notebook-worthy sequence of rain-drenched kissing — before he realises that it’s merely a façade for his own sexual uncertainty.
Too often, teen films, and especially queer teen films, interpret this kind of uncertainty as an obstacle to conquer. They treat the idea of a fixed self as the final goal of any successful coming-of-age journey, implying that we must eliminate all inner conflict before we exhibit our identities to the world — via public Ferris wheel smooch or otherwise. In Giant Little Ones, however, uncertainty isn’t a means to an end; it is the end. Franky and Ballas don’t re-emerge out and proud; they learn to differing extents that sexuality, like any facet of identity, is fluid and evolving — and to think otherwise is to engage in a permanent, cyclical chase for fulfilment.
A scene midway through the film reminds us why that chase is futile. Franky stares into his bathroom mirror, clippers poised. The camera is still for a moment, then tufts of hair come tumbling down. When he’s done, he resembles a jailhouse miscreant, still bearing the cuts and bruises of an earlier fight. He shaves in an attempt at performing contrived masculinity, as if every patch of exposed scalp entrenches his new persona as angsty, hard-knock bad boy. When he’s next on his bike, there’s no gust of wind running through luscious locks, as there was at the beginning of the film. Something’s been sacrificed — maybe freedom, maybe joy — and for what? He’s still just as lost within himself, unable to commit to the role he is playing.
Franky’s straight-washing of himself is an effort to quell uncertainties that every queer viewer will recognise — the urge to dress ‘straighter’, present as more ‘masc’, and submit to social norms not out of compliance, but fear. We’ve seen it in other places too, notably in this year’s Sex Education (2018), the breakout Netflix show starring Asa Butterfield as a high schooler who attempts to disseminate sex and relationship advice to a student base that woefully needs it. But Asa’s campy and visibly queer sidekick, Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa), is the show’s real revelation. After five episodes of seemingly unflappable optimism, there’s a shift in his demeanour after he’s attacked while walking home in drag, dressed as Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s slinky, big-haired titular character. With his face bloodied and clothes torn, he stumbles his way towards help.
The next morning, he stands before his wardrobe. Glitter gives way to grey, colourful co-ords substituted with beige caps. The flamboyant, confident Eric we met in Sex Education’s first half is gone, and in his place is a different, hoodie-wearing Eric dressed with military precision. His speech becomes truncated; his eyes sunken.
Like Franky’s shave, this new exterior serves as protection, but it’s also a reaction against his innermost insecurities. Here though, Eric isn’t plagued by the uncertainty of his queerness, but how he should present it. Even from the show’s pilot, he obsessively considers outfits to wear to school, to parties. Will they impress the populars? Are they memorable enough? In one fell swoop, he silences those anxieties, as well as the fear of another homophobic attack.
Both Franky and Eric’s drastic measures are smokescreens for genuine self-confrontation, leaving nothing but emptiness in their wake. The forced restriction of their identities only limits their ability to process trauma, and leaves them without the means to exhale. It’s not until they’ve come to terms with their uncertainty that they can ultimately come of age. That’s the key to the new wave of queer teen content, one that steers away from Love, Simon’s blind optimism and instead, actively makes space for oscillation, growth, and openness.
For Eric, that growth looks like understanding the diversity of queer presentation, and donning traditional cultural garb to his school dance, complete with shimmery eye shadow.
For Franky, it means making peace with his unlabelled and un-boxed queerness, and accepting the opportunity to evolve with his sexuality. He re-assembles Ballas’ bike, leaving it at his house along with a found locket declaring his love — platonic, or romantic, or any number of permutations in between — and cycles away. On two wheels, he finally feels endless again as his future unravels like the lamp-lit street before him.
Giant Little Ones is showing on Thursday March 14th as part of Sydney Mardi Gras Film Festival’s Encore Screenings.
Michael Sun is a writer and designer from Sydney who literally can’t stop referencing Love, Simon in everything he does. Check out his other two pieces about it in Overland and Double J, or more at michaelsun.com / @MlCHAELSUN.