Frozen in a Feeling: Mirrors and Being Seen in Goran Stolevski’s Of an Age

In the space of two years Macedonian-Australian director Goran Stolevski has emerged as a cinematic talent who can vividly craft a philosophical treatise on what it is to live wrapped in the skin of a folk horror genre piece with You Won’t Be Alone set in 19th Century Macedonia and deliver a deeply romantic queer coming-of-age story set in Melbourne in 1999 (and again in 2010) with Of an Age. There are comparisons to be made between the films in Stolevski’s use of a point of view from an outsider’s perspective and the ache the protagonist feels to find a portal of belonging. In You Won’t Be Alone, the silent Navena changes skin to avoid detection from the villagers who view her as a threat, so too does Kol (Elias Anton) change as much as he is able to avoid anyone gleaning his sexuality in Of an Age. He cannot hide his ethnicity, although he is seen as a generic “wog” by many in his working-class northern Melbourne suburb. Navena and Kol want to experience life but they fear that they are rendered outsiders and without acceptance they will walk alone and lonely.

Of an Age begins with Serbian-Australian Kol practicing his dance moves in a mirror. He scrutinises his body. In a few hours he will be performing in a ballroom dance final with his friend Ebony Donegal (Hattie Hook) as his partner. That is until he gets a frenzied call from Ebony who has been out partying the night before and has woken up stranded somewhere with a beach. The beach is in Altona, Kol is in Watsonia. If he hurries he can get to Ebony, get her dressed, and make it to the competition. In reality the distance between Watsonia and Altona means the trip will take hours, but Kol has been looking forward to expressing himself on the dancefloor and all Ebony really needs is a ride home from Altona.

After a flurried series of adventures to pick up Ebony’s dress, Ebony’s older brother Adam (Thom Green) is called in to get his sister out of whatever mess she’s gotten herself in and just maybe get the pair to the dance competition.

Just out of high school Kol is still finding his feet. Adam has just finished a degree in linguistics and is heading to Argentina to do his PhD the next day. Over the course of twenty-four hours Kol’s life will be changed – he will be seen and loved for who he is by a man who will disappear from his life for over ten years.

The drive to Altona is shot in the car by Stolevski and his cinematographer Matthew Chuang. The intimacy of the setting is palpable but made even more so by Stolevski’s revelatory script. Adam sees Kol as a bright young man who has been stifled by the incurious world around him. As someone who was also a student at Watsonia College, and one that kept his head down, he knows that just being bright is enough to warrant exclusion from social circles. Adam and Kol exchange jokes and Adam is genuinely impressed that Kol can make a Kafka joke. He laughs when Kol mispronounces Borges, but it is a gentle ribbing that is laced with a feeling of recognition. Adam asks why Kol would be friends with Ebony, and Kol admits that no one else would speak to him at school.

Stolevski lets the camera tease out the similarities between the two men and also the differences. Adam is calm and self-possessed. Kol is nervous and reticent. As Adam brings Kol out of his shell Stolevski’s camera stays close on their faces – the side glances they give each other. Adam is unafraid to look at Kol, but Kol is not quite ready for what Adam sees. They discuss film, literature, music – Kol is surprised to find anyone who cares about his opinion, certainly Ebony doesn’t. Other than his widowed mother who works tirelessly to provide for Kol and his little brother, the only other family Kol has are his macho uncle and cousins. From the casual and pointed racism he faces every day (including from Ebony) to the suggestion that he is a “faggot” from his peers, Kol has shrunk himself down to be as invisible as possible. When Adam deliberately lets slip that he is gay, Kol immediately “dudes up” and pretends he is straight. Adam already knows Kol is gay, he’s just waiting for him to admit it to himself.

Ebony functions as a foil between the two men. She’s an entitled brat (who is nursing her own wounds and is perhaps more self-aware than she seems) and her presence gives Adam and Kol something more to bond over. Putting up with Ebony is something only saints would be required to do. Eventually when they get back to Adam and Ebony’s house Adam offers Kol some of his old clothing (Kol has been wearing his dancing outfit all day) and as Kol changes clothes he finds he is starting to resemble Adam. Looking in the mirror he sees himself, really sees himself, and with shame and frustration knows he cannot hide his sexuality for much longer.

“I bet you’re the kind of person who practices words in a mirror,” Adam jokes with Kol in the car. The observation is more pertinent than a casual quip. Kol’s only friend and worst enemy has been the mirror. He is free to see himself in it, but it strips him bare physically and psychologically. After a disastrous house party that Adam made Ebony invite Kol to (where he is called a faggot and told to go back to CzechoSOUVALIKIA by the genuinely hateful Coral (Grace Graznak), Kol storms down the road only to be picked up by Adam where they make love. In a devastating final shot that ends the 1999 section of the film the two men, almost identical in dress, look over the outer suburbs of Melbourne. Both are destined to leave, and both have found something they weren’t expecting the morning they met.

The story picks up again in 2010. Kol, who now goes by Nikola is an out gay man who has spent years living in the UK working in public health. Seemingly by chance he looks over the luggage carousel at Tullamarine Airport and sees Adam. Adam has segued from linguistics and now works in a non-profit in Spain. Instantly their connection reignites. Nikola jokes that now he is an elder gay and has been told he is too old by twinks. On a more serious note he tells Adam that in coming out he and his mother were ex-communicated from the family and she now lives in rural Victoria. The seventeen-year-old Kol had a lot to lose by accepting his sexuality, perhaps more than Adam could understand.

They are both there to attend Ebony’s wedding to a feckless and pedestrian man. Ebony’s fate was something she understood as soon as she wasn’t accepted into NIDA after high school. She would stay in Watsonia, marry someone, play queen-bee with people like Coral (who ironically married a Serb). Nikola openly says he isn’t going to be married until it is legal, leading him to find out that Adam has married. His heartbreak is profound and turns to anger. Somewhere Kol became frozen in time in the moment he was seen by Adam. Even though ten years have passed he kept up an adolescent dream that one day he would be reunited with his first love.

Dressed in their wedding suits Nikola and Adam are once again mirrors. Stolevski and Chuang reinforce the metaphor with a Bundoora Hotel reflecting their image. Throughout the film mirrors in bedrooms, cars, houses, and hotels have been reflecting the men. Glass has been smashed in anger. Shards of identity have been recognised, but as every glimpse into a mirror is fleeting even if the feeling experienced is not, it is akin to the adage that the same river can never be stepped into twice.

Goran Stolevki’s Of an Age understands what it is to be stripped bare by a gentle gaze. It also comprehends all the confusion and panic that surrounds being seen and seeing oneself. Kol found a mentor and a lover in the space of twenty-four hours and expected that to last forever, and in a way it did. Elias Anton and Thom Green’s nuanced performances make the audience believe that there is a love that never goes away even if the world moves on. Being frozen in time is not necessarily being trapped by it, recalling being brave enough to see what someone else sees in you and take steps to become that person is like stepping away from the lonely mirror to bask in a new reflection.

Director: Goran Stolevski

Cast: Elias Anton, Thom Green, Hattie Hook

Writer: Goran Stolevski

Producers: Kristina Ceyton, Samantha Jennings

Cinematography: Matthew Chuang

Editor: Goran Stolevski

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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