Hormones, coupled with the emergence of independent identity, make our teenage years turbulent, but coming out is less fraught than we expect for the 17-year-old protagonists in two queer movies at this year’s fifth annual Queer Screen Film Festival.
By
Stephen A. Russell

19 Sep 2017 - 2:18 PM  UPDATED 21 Sep 2017 - 10:26 AM

Love and friendship

Embracing the woozy, wistful passions of Céline Sciamma and Xavier Dolan’s films, Austrian writer/director Monja Art’s debut feature Seventeen (Siebzehn) is layered with longing.

Set in a boarding school in Lanzenkirchen, the rural town where Art grew up, it’s blessed with brilliant performances. Gifted French speaker Paula (Elisabeth Wabitsch) secretly daydreams about her best friend Charlotte (Anaelle Dézsy), who is dating Michael (Leo Plankensteiner) but may feel the same way. Paula’s also pursued by Tim (Alexander Wychodil) and Lilli (Alexandra Schmidt), but not everyone can own, or even understand, their emotions.

“I like these missed opportunities, this love that almost is,” Art says. “I like heartache maybe more than pure happiness and I also believe that a lot of misfortune belongs to even a little luck.”

So much of the film plays out in the liminal space between love and friendship, a fine line often crossed in dreams. “Everything is possible in our fantasy,” Art says. “If you think about the past and the future only existing in our heads, and the only real thing is this very moment right now, then fantasy gets an entirely different dimension.”

Art drew on her own teenage malleability when writing the film to the tune of Kings of Leon’s Only by the Night album, from which she took the film’s name but sadly couldn’t afford to license the track for its soundtrack. “Maybe my image of my youth is glorified, but, in this case, it was glorified back then already. And when I talked with my young actresses and actors about sexuality and love they told me really similar experiences.”

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There has been some surprise at the fluidity demonstrated in Seventeen when Art has screened the film to teenagers in Austria and Germany, but it was always a given. “When I wrote the script I didn’t even think about negative representations of queer teens. It was totally clear to me that it doesn’t matter which gender the person somebody falls in love with has.”

Seventeen’s emotional honesty rests on a remarkable performance by Wabitsch in her debut role, discovered in an open audition of around 500 teens. It also explores the friendships that anchor Paula, though drama is wrought from her neglect of those bonds. “Friendship is often more profound than being in love,” Art says, acknowledging that the line between love and friendship can be blurred. “It’s easier to pretend being friends than to confide oneself in this special person, but in the end, we can be sure that this ‘friendship’ won’t remain. If you have crossed the line to love, then it’s hard, or impossible, to go back.”  

Summer of love

Finnish writer/director Nils-Erik Ekblom’s good-humoured debut feature Screwed (Pihalla), is refreshingly similar in its relaxed approach to coming out. Co-written with Tom Norrgrann, it stars Mikko Kauppila as Miku, a reserved 17-year-old who finds himself in deep water when he and his wilder older brother Sebu (Juho Keskitalo) trash their home during a huge party.

Whisked away to their summer house by his none-too-pleased parents and deprived - dramatically - of his phone, a despondent Miku falls in with new neighbour Elias (Valtteri Lehtinen). While both boys have baggage, as with Seventeen, their gradually emerging queer relationship isn’t a major plot beat in a film concerned with the everyday mechanics of young minds gearing up for adulthood.

“With my writing partner Tom, that was one of the biggest points we decided very early on,” Ekblom says. “Our characters’ internal everyday conflicts are way bigger than their sexuality, which is the way we think it should be, and that at least in Finnish society that’s where we are going, though of course there’s resistance to that.”

Reflecting a world of acceptance back at teenage moviegoers is important, Ekblom argues. “There are a lot of teenagers who are gay who would really like people not to care, that it wouldn’t be a big deal. I think we need more media around that.”

Despite Screwed being his first feature, shot on weekends around a full-time job in advertising, Ekblom says it was a remarkably easy ride, largely due to the brilliance of Kauppila and Lehtinen, both of whom turned 18 while filming.

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“It felt like I was working with two veteran actors,” Ekblom says. “During the first week I realised that we could push them very far and, at least to me, they didn’t show they were nervous. I’ve never heard a story that someone does their first feature movie and it doesn’t feel like going to war. This wasn’t war. This was fun.”

Ekblom auditioned every actor separately, combining them in post while casting, instantly recognising the chemistry between Kauppila and Lehtinen. “There was a lot of magic happening,” he reveals. “They memorised the script perfectly and I always told them you can just forget about it if it doesn’t feel natural. My direction on set was just to find nuance and ways for us to make it more interesting and realistic.”

Screwed sings because of this central pairing, as Miku ekes out new territory with the more experienced though volatile Elias, exploring his sexuality with an open mind, much like Paula. When the boys do give in to passion, it’s intoxicating. “I didn’t want to have a sex scene just to have a sex scene,” Ekblom says. “It had to say something. lt was very interesting to work that out with the guys and they were extremely professional. Again, I feel like I’ve grown as a director on this shoot because I got to work with such wonderful people.”

The Queer Screen Film Festival runs from September 19-24. Book tickets to see Seventeen here and Screwed here.