Full of sand, sea and tumultuous teenage longing, the glimmering waters of Sydney’s heralded beaches run deep in writer/director Craig Boreham’s queer Australian coming-of-age movie Teenage Kicks, enjoying its world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival this June.
It features former children’s TV star Miles Szanto as Mik, a tortured young man of Hungarian heritage who’s harbouring a secret crush on his ripped surfing buddy Dan, played by Daniel Webber, most recently seen as JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald opposite James Franco in Bridget Carpenter’s Stephen King adaptation 11.22.63.
Mik’s pent-up emotions are further complicated by the arrival of Dan’s new girlfriend Phaedra (Charlotte Best). As if that three-way wasn’t complex enough, a tragic road accident kills Mik’s older brother Tomi (Nadim Kobeissi), with the younger man blaming himself, shattering his hopes of running away and starting a new life with Dan.
The simmering homoeroticism between Mik and Dan comes to a head in a post-pool shower scene set in a stunning Coogee cliff-top mansion. Epitomising the glamour of Sydney’s beachside highlife, the behind-the-scenes reality of the micro-budget shoot meant the boys had to strip naked in winter, when the light’s far less harsh.
“For that shower scene, we couldn’t use hot water or it would fog up the camera, so I’m standing there naked with my cock and balls on display with freezing cold water rushing all over me,” Szanto laughs across a Skype connection from his now base of Los Angeles, grimacing at the memory.
“It’s a gorgeous house, but it had been sitting up there unheated all winter, so we could only film in the pool for about 30 seconds. After every take Dan and I would rush to the bathroom and just spoon in the shower under hot water, asking ourselves, ‘why did we choose this job? Why is this our career?’”
Speaking from his own base in LA, Webber concurs. “It was bloody freezing. We had a few water scenes where we were like, ‘we’ve got two takes in this and then we’re done, we can’t do it again.’”
Both effusive about the other’s acting chops and general excellence, they also agree that Boreham’s screenplay was gripping. “When I read Drowning, Craig’s first incarnation of this film, it was so raw and honest it spoke to me in such an incredible way where I felt like I was living through those experiences as I was reading them,” Szanto says. “The terror of growing older and having to become a man and not really being sure how that works. Because of the grief and the hormones exploding out of him, he’s been forced to look at this stuff for the first time. He knows he has feelings for men, and sometimes women, but I don’t think he’s ready to label himself just yet.”
Webber admits he was initially drawn to the story on a somewhat surface level, “I just loved the idea of playing a young surfie character and having an excuse to grow my hair long,” he laughs.
Hitting it off with Boreham after meeting at a screening of a short film he appeared in, Teenage Kicks is Webber’s first lead role in a feature. A confronting twist late in the piece was the real hook for him. “I was genuinely worried about the ending, which was kinda part of the decision for taking the role. I honestly didn’t know how to go about it and found it personally very confronting. It makes you question everything that’s come before and makes Dan a much more complex character.”
Boreham penned the feature that would become Teenage Kicks in what he rakishly refers to as a “vomit draft,” an unfettered stream-of consciousness, before adapting the previously mentioned pool scene for his short, Drowning. That first draft drew on his experience of working at Twenty10 when it was a refuge for queer kids, and also the death of his partner’s brother. He hit upon the idea of combining the universality of the troubled teen experience and the awkwardness of emerging sexuality with the long shadow cast by the death of a loved family member.
“Mik’s in that kind of period that I guess is the Q in LGBTIQ, standing for queer or questioning,” Boreham says. “Just being in that place of exploration and trying to make sense of how you’re feeling and being driven instinctively and intuitively, rather than politically. There are a lot of young people who are definitely embracing identity politics vehemently as well, but I do think the rigidity of those labels aren’t as fixed as they were before.”
Mik's brother Tomi is a rock for him, but as with most elements of this film, the territory carved between them is muddy. Scenes where the pair share a joint by blowbacks are electrically charged and the fatal accident is sparked when Tomi catches Mik watching him masturbate.
"There are a lot of young people who are definitely embracing identity politics vehemently as well, but I do think the rigidity of those labels aren’t as fixed as they were before.”
“Mik feels responsible for the death of his brother and it’s intrinsically linked to his sexuality,” Boreham says. “He starts to be quite destructive and has the perception that his sexuality, or he himself, is toxic and everything he does is going to cause ruin to everyone around him. I think that that’s something that plays out a lot in young people’s minds, that idea of feeling like you’re just a fuck up.”
Inspired by Gus van Sant’s earlier work, including Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho, Boreham moved to Sydney more than 20 years ago to study filmmaking at UTS, having grown up in Brisbane’s West End where he says he was pretty much the only white kid on the block in a neighbourhood made up mostly of Vietnamese, Greek and other European migrants.
Mik’s family was always written as migrants, though that changed from third generation Greek Australian to more recent arrival Hungarians in recognition of Szanto’s background. This backdrop, coupled with their firm religious beliefs, adds additional difficulty for Mik in a way that recalls Head On, Anna Kokkinos’ big screen adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ novel Loaded, which starred Alex Dimitriades and Paul Capsis.
Boreham finds the lack of ethnic diversity in Australian film and TV particularly weird given the country’s rich multicultural makeup. He’d also like to see a lot more LGBTIQ voices but is heartened by a new wave of queer Australian filmmakers and the success of films like 52 Tuesdays, Holding the Man and Louise Wadley’s All About E. With producers, distributors and sales agents often nervy about audience reach for queer films, he counts himself lucky he was fully supported.
There’s also a welcome role for an impossibly young-looking ex-rugby player Ian Roberts as Dan’s burly dad. “I’ve worked with Ian before and wrote that part with him in mind. He’s such a beautiful man and it was nice to see him play a struggling single dad and a bit of a yob.
“There have been a lot of things written about that idea of audience perception, whether they can suspend belief and put a gay man in a straight heroic role and forget about it? We can see now that that can be done. I guess the next step is to have those roles allowed to be gay.”