As Goran Stolevski’s second feature is released, the director talks about why queerness is “just so much hotter and sexier than anything a straight person might experience in life”
Of an Age, the second feature film from writer-director Goran Stolevski, is a queer love story with a unique mood. It’s poignant, evocative and filled with longing, but somehow these words don’t quite capture the gasp of sadness it leaves you with. Stolevski says the closest he has come is the Portuguese word sodade, which is also the title of a song by Cape Verdean singer Cesária Évora that soundtracks an intimate scene.
“It doesn’t have a direct English translation,” says Stolevski, speaking on Zoom from his home in Melbourne, Australia. “But it kind of means divine nostalgia – and nostalgia for a certain moment that’s both happy and sad at the same time. That’s the feeling I was looking to harness." Though Of an Age is a period film – it mainly takes place in 1999 – Stolevski says he wanted his love story to feel as though it plays out “in the present tense”. In a sense, he was trying to evoke sodade in real-time. “I’m always looking for that feeling of nostalgia for the present even as you’re experiencing it – like you’re gonna miss it later on,” says the director. His previous feature film, last year’s beguiling horror story You Won’t Be Alone, was also laced with an ineffable melancholy.
In Of an Age, Stolevski achieves this deft balancing act by letting his love story unfold, with incredible intimacy, in a single day. On the morning of his ballroom dance finals, 17-year-old Nikola (Elias Anton) takes a frantic phone call from his wayward partner Ebony (Hattie Hook). Having taken speed the night before, she has woken up in a strange town with no money and only one shoe. Because this is 1999, Ebony’s hot mess behaviour is even more stressful for everyone involved. She can’t drop a pin with her location and is having to call Nikola from an old-school phone box after cadging a coin from a passer-by.
Ebony enlists Nikola to come to her rescue with help from her erudite older brother Adam (Thom Green), who is about to move overseas. When the two men meet in Adam’s car, Nikola is so devastated about missing his dance finals that he literally vomits at the side of the road. But in time, Nikola calms down enough to respond to Adam’s gently mocking charm. By the time they collect Ebony from a seaside town around an hour away, it is clear they share a flicker of a spark that only Adam fully recognises. He is “openly gay” – a phrase that would have felt more loaded in 1999 than it does now – whereas Nikola seems still to be processing his sexuality.
On a superficial level, Of an Age is a gay love story because it involves two cisgender men. But on a deeper one, it feels thrillingly queer because of the way their attraction manifests – with tacit glances, careful queer coding and tentative gestures. “So many depictions of queerness set in a time that wasn’t welcoming to [homosexuality] concentrate on the trauma and conflict,” says Stovleskli. “And with that oppression and alienation comes a very specific kind of loneliness. But for me, the flip side of that [loneliness] is that when you meet someone, the electricity of the secret you share is very special. It’s just so much hotter and sexier than anything a straight person might experience in life.”
Stolevski calls Of an Age an “emotional autobiography as opposed to a literal one”. The director was born in North Macedonia, then emigrated to Australia as a child with his family. Nikola’s own backstory is broadly similar: as a Serbian immigrant whose mother is working three jobs, he encounters cruel casual racism from high school peers who are oblivious to their own privilege. However, Stolevski says it would be reductive to presume Nikola is simply a thinly veiled version of himself.
“I’m a lot more Adam than Nikola, to be honest,” he says. “In my final year of high school I was openly and militantly gay.” Stolevski and Adam also share a passion for iconic singer-songwriter Tori Amos, whose emotional ballad Cooling features prominently in the film. “If I were to write a film about my final year of high school, it would probably be called Tori Amos,” the director says with a wry smile. “I spent my days tracking down live versions of her songs on the internet.”
The film’s final section is set 11 years later, in 2010; it plays out with heartbreaking, devastating specificity. However, Stolevski believes this story also has universal resonance. “After Of an Age screened at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, I had a lot of gay men coming up to me to say I had captured their story,” he says. “But I also had women of all ages – straight, queer, everything in between – telling me the same thing.” He readily admits that these reactions make him “tear up” every time. “For me, art is about connecting on the level of the inner life,” he says. “Experiences have demographics, but feelings don’t, and it’s the feelings in this film that people are responding to.”
Of an Age is out in the UK now.