Review: Death, Lesbians, and Disappointment in ‘Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)’

The opening scenes of Monica Zanetti’s debut feature, Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt), refreshingly get to the point: Ellie (Sophie Hawkshaw), a high school captain and motivational talk enthusiast, has a crush on classmate Abbie (Zoe Terakes). Formal season has sprung, and while she can’t quite bring herself to talk to Abbie, Ellie resolutely decides to ask her to the big event – something she casually announces to her mum, Erica (Marta Dusseldorp).

What follows is one of the film’s many mortifying silences. A paralysed Erica can’t bring herself to respond, the sudden pallor of her face streaked with dread. In this very moment, we discover this is Ellie’s official coming out.

It’s a surprising, emotionally charged opening – and that’s before Ellie’s dead lesbian aunt Tara (Julia Billington) blossoms out of the grave to become her so-called ‘fairy godmother’. The decision to ground the film in Ellie’s fraught relationship with her mother is an astute choice on Zanetti’s behalf; the act of coming out inherently fractures filial relationships into a before/after phase, and it’s rare to see a queer teen film so intent on traversing that crevice.

Of course, it’s rare to see an Australian lesbian teen film period. So paltry is our gay cinema that, if you Google ‘gay Australian films’, Mad Max (1979) is listed as one of the first results. Ellie & Abbie represents a meaningful step in filling that void, and is genuinely thrilling in that regard. It’s a shame, then, that I found little to enjoy about the film itself.  

Considering the film’s high-concept premise and the titular prominence of Ellie’s dead aunt, she’s surprisingly underutilised. Initially, she’s a comforting presence; there’s catharsis in her attempts to placate Ellie in the wake of her inauspicious coming-out attempt. Not every gay kid is so lucky. The rest of her interactions with Ellie, however, are spent dishing out dated romantic advice (to gauge Abbie’s sexuality, she suggests to inquire about AFL), or learning about the advent of social media in her mortal absence. Their mismatch doesn’t explore how queerness and the world at large has changed since the ‘80s so much as it simply lampshades that such a difference exists. If you’re likely to be amused by the fact that a modern teenager may be unfamiliar with older lesbian icons such as k.d. lang, then you will enjoy this movie more than I did.

Later on, Ellie & Abbie uncovers aunt Tara’s past as a firebrand political activist to acknowledge the sacrifices made by older generations of the LGBTQI+ community, and reminds us that queer history can only survive if it’s shared and preserved by those within the community. Yet – without spoiling – this approach gets muddled with the film’s obfuscation of that very history, reinterpreting Sydney’s infamous ‘Cleansing March’ of 1989 purely for the sake of a contrived twist. It’s bizarre that the film has to resort to fabricating gay tragedy in the ‘80s, of all decades.

Eschewing the sort of whip-smart, quip-ready teens of Booksmart (2019) or But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), Ellie & Abbie revels in the awkwardness that engulfs its central pair. It’s a film that’s all too conscious of how social barriers, stigma, and trauma can occlude the high-wire balancing act of teenage courting for queer adolescents, and the leads’ social ineptitude reflected this turmoil in a way that occasionally made me feel seen. But more often than not, the dialogue fails to capture anything remotely resembling authentic teenage-speak, and interactions between the two romantic leads so frequently consist of misunderstandings and fumbled conversations that I was never sure why they even liked each other.

Fundamentally, neither Ellie nor Abbie register as real characters. Ellie’s a school captain, yet has no discernible friends or life outside of school. There’s even a moment when she describes herself as a millennial, which speaks volumes towards the film’s dated approach to its teens. On the other hand, Abbie is a passionate, independent spirit who inexplicably apologises for swearing. The use of the word ‘cunt’ actually becomes a major plot incident in this film, as if it wasn’t one of the most quotidian, desensitised words in the Australian teenage lexicon. Sometimes, you have to accept that teen films exist in their own fantasyland where class struggles or racism magically don’t exist (hello, Love, Simon [2018]), but this one struggles to stay down to earth.

Ellie & Abbie clearly didn’t resonate with me, which is fine; I have no doubt it will mean the world to the younger queer audience this film seems to be targeted at. Which begs the question, why on earth is this film rated MA15+? A trip to the Australian Classification website for this film reveals that, were it not for the film’s (wholly unnecessary and generally awkward) swearing, the film would have likely landed a PG rating.

To be honest, this classification bothers me far more than the quality of the movie itself. LGBTQI+ kids under the age of 15 shouldn’t have to be accompanied by an adult to watch films for and about them. Is anyone expecting kids to jump through hoops to see this movie when boundless gay content already exists on free social media platforms? Moreover, the bullshit stigma of ‘adult content’ already pervades enough harmless queer media. Historically, classification boards have been the enemy of queer cinema – see But I’m a Cheerleader, once again – but it appears that Ellie & Abbie’s prohibitive rating could have been avoided.

As a queer Australian who loves movies, the last thing I want to do is tear into gay Australian cinema when it barely exists in the first place. Whatever my issues are with the film, they’re dwarfed by a broader frustration at how difficult it is to get crowd-pleasing LGBTQI+ movies made in this country. We can do better.

Ellie & Abbie (& Elllie’s Dead Aunt) screened as the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival’s Program Spotlight on 19 August.

View the MIFF site for more info.

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Jamie Tram is a writer, filmmaker, and screwball obsessive from Melbourne, Australia. His writing lurks at Senses of Cinema, Kill Your Darlings, and other places. You can direct all your complaints to @tram_i_am.

Jamie Tram