(Sweet) Sixteen Great Australian Teen Films

May 20, 2016
With the excellent Is This The Real World priming for release, and Teenage Kicks about to play the Sydney Film Festival, here are sixteen utterly essential Australian teen films. Put yourself on immediate detention and watch ‘em all now!

PUBERTY BLUES (1981) e79ada6bdc62b6dd8207670922651033

Directed with a mix of warmth, unflinching social enquiry, and hard hitting honesty by Bruce Beresford (Don’s Party, The Club), 1981’s Puberty Blues is set around the then slightly wild and undeveloped beaches of Sydney’s Cronulla in the early eighties – an often cruel landscape home to local surfing crews, cheap and nasty drugs, copious booze, scrappily captured moments of teen sex, street prowling “fuck trucks”, and fierce territorialism. Sixteen-year-olds, Debbie Vickers and Sue Knight (then-newcomers Nell Schofield and Jad Capelja), are bristling under the heavy brand of sexism doled out by the boys that they kick around with, and the dual oppression of school and parents. The narrative and thematic thrust of Puberty Blues is the girls’ initial desperation to hook into the “in-crowd”, but with a strong feminist kick, Debbie and Sue ultimately realise that they’re their own in-crowd, and soon strike out on their own terms. From the hilarious, slang-packed dialogue and rich, honest characterisation, through to its eye opening cruelty and uncompromising take on the darker corners of teenage life, Puberty Blues (which would later be rebooted as an excellent TV series) is a straight up, no-bullshit Aussie classic.

THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE (1987) MPW-57985

Written and directed by John Duigan with breathtaking honesty and sensitivity, The Year My Voice Broke revolves around fifteen-year-old Danny (Noah Taylor in his first major film role), an eccentric kid who doesn’t even come close to being in step with the deeply conservative, wholly Australian rhythms of the small rural town where he lives in 1962. Attending a local dance with greased black hair, sunglasses, leather jacket, and cigarette dangling daringly from the corner of his mouth, Danny sees himself as a rebel, but he’s way too sensitive for that. Withdrawn, artistic and individualistic, Danny experiences a quintessential coming of age when he falls heavily for his childhood friend, the free spirited and quickly maturing Freya (Loene Carmen), who has a bundle of dark secrets in her past. When the wild, charismatic and constantly-in-trouble Trevor (Ben Mendelsohn) wins Freya’s heart and ends up getting her pregnant, Danny is drawn into a situation that he’s not emotionally equipped to deal with. Masterfully performed and absolutely flawless, The Year My Voice Broke is a masterpiece of Australian adolescence.

FLIRTING (1991) flirting

Not many Australian films get the sequel treatment, and Flirting is one of the best. John Duigan’s follow-up to The Year My Voice Broke is set in 1965, and sees Noah Taylor’s Danny Embling shipped off to a snooty boarding school, the leafy, lush surrounds of which instantly set the film apart visually from its arid, brown-dirt-and-blue-sky predecessor. Surrounded by loud, competitive schoolboys, Danny is an instant outsider, finding his heroes in the world of literature rather than on the sporting field. He takes his moral and philosophical cues from Jean Paul Sartre, but maintains the pained, romantic sense of longing that was first glimpsed in The Year My Voice Broke. Despite his status as a social pariah, Danny is still able to get the attention of the beautiful Thandiwe Adjewa (Thandie Newton in her first film role), who attends the girls’ boarding school across the lake. Danny and Thandiwe’s love blooms, but as in The Year My Voice Broke, it doesn’t come without a little pain. Graceful and true, Flirting is a fine follow-up to a flawless flick.

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975) picnic_at_hanging_rock_ver1

An untouchable local classic, Picnic At Hanging Rock was met with uniform raves upon its release, and screened at a number of festivals around the world. And though it’s rarely tagged or discussed as such, this masterpiece is also one of the most unusual entries into the teen film genre ever committed to celluloid. On St. Valentine’s Day in 1900, a group of boarding school girls (led by the angelic and piercingly beautiful Miranda, played with ethereal otherworldliness by Anne Louise Lambert) go on a picnic to Hanging Rock, an extraordinary, eerie volcanic formation on the slopes of Mount Macedon, on the edge of the Victorian bush. When a smaller group of girls go into the rock to explore, they simply, without warning, vanish. One of the girls is found wandering in a dazed state a week later, but remembers nothing. And after that, everyone involved with the boarding school and the girls’ disappearance starts to crumble: be it physically, financially, emotionally or spiritually. Tapping expertly into the “otherness” of adolescence, Picnic At Hanging Rock is a wondrous achievement.

LOOKING FOR ALIBRANDI (2000) looking-for-alibrandi

Based upon Melina Marchetta’s beloved novel, and beautifully brought to the screen by debut director, Kate Woods (who has sadly not directed a feature since, instead finding great success on both Australian and American TV), Looking For Alibrandi is right at the forefront of the Australian pantheon of teen films. Though sunny in tone, the film effectively tackles weighty subject matter such as cultural identity and self-belief, and introduced a swathe of exciting young performers, including Pia Miranda (as plucky teen, Josie), Matthew Newton (as her upper crust crush, John) and Kick Gurry (as working class hero, Jacob). “It’s my first feature, it’s Pia’s first feature, it’s Kick’s first feature, and it’s Kate’s first feature,” Matthew Newton told FilmInk upon the film’s release. “There were a lot of virgins on the set, but it all came together really well. I knew that it was a great script, and once I got on set and saw how things were running, I knew that it was going to be pretty special. I could see that everyone was doing incredible work.”

THE GETTING OF WISDOM (1978) the-getting-of-wisdom-movie-poster-1977-1020203871

Among the great canon of classic seventies Australian cinema, Bruce Beresford’s The Getting Of Wisdom is something of a bastard child, remembered but not particularly well loved. It’s a pity, because this tart, beautifully observed adaptation of the autobiographical novel by Henry Handel Richardson (the pseudonym of Ethel Richardson) is one of the director’s best works. Set within the rigourous confines of a posher-than-thou girls’ boarding school, the film follows the trials and tribulations of the poor-born Laura Tweedle Rambotham (incredible discovery, Susannah Fowle), who clashes with the school’s catty rich girls, and has to find her own inner resolve. Touching on issues of class, bigotry and same-sex relationships, The Getting Of Wisdom is a quiet classic of the Australian cinematic renaissance, and a tellingly true depiction of the female teenage experience, remaining strikingly contemporary despite its period setting. And while the picture painted here of female adolescence is particularly harsh – complete with lying, cheating, cruelty, broken hearts and torn allegiances – the film’s ending is a surprisingly positive (though bittersweet) one.

SAMSON & DELILAH (2009) Samson_and_Delilah_poster

Set somewhere in the Central Australian Desert, the highly acclaimed debut feature from Warwick Thornton (who had previously helmed the superb short films, Nana and Green Bush) is wholly harrowing and uncompromising fare – totally realistic yet simultaneously artful and imaginative. Fifteen-year-old Samson (Rowan McNamara) and sixteen-year-old Delilah (Marissa Gibson) are two Aboriginal kids living in the middle of nowhere, and in grinding, soul-crushing poverty. He sniffs petrol, is virtually oblivious to whatever is going on around him (no matter how ghastly), and is occasionally violent for no apparent reason. She is, nonetheless, somewhat intrigued by him. When Delilah’s artist grandmother (Mitjili Gibson) dies, the pair gets blamed, and they hit the road in a stolen car. A star-maker for Thornton at The Cannes Film Festival, Samson & Delilah is an all-too-rare, crushingly moving glimpse into the lives of Australia’s indigenous teenagers. “My characters go down these dark paths, but when the sun comes out at the end and you see the light again, it makes the light so much more beautiful,” Thornton told FilmInk.

SOMERSAULT (2004) Somersault Movie Poster

The lone gem in what was a low point for Australian cinema (with a cacophony of lame local comedies crowding screens in the mid-2000s), Somersault came on like a sweet, invigorating shower of rain. The stunning debut feature from acclaimed short filmmaker, Cate Shortland, justifiably received garlands of praise and was also rewarded with decent box office results. Evocatively shot and sensitively written, Somersault follows the fractured journey of sixteen-year-old Heidi (a heartbreaking, star-making performance from Abbie Cornish), who runs from a flare-up with her mother and ends up in the bleak, snow-slicked town of Lake Jindabyne, where she falls into the arms of a deeply troubled young farmer (Sam Worthington). Equal parts tragic and beautiful, Somersault is a quietly wrought masterpiece of teenage alienation and uncertainty. “I’m very choosy,” Abbie Cornish told FilmInk upon the film’s release, giving an instant indication of the film’s quality. “Seriously, if there’s not a good film put in front of me to audition for – even if it takes two years – then I won’t act for two years.”

THE BLACK BALLOON (2008) black_balloon

After introducing herself as a short filmmaker to watch by winning the top prize at Tropfest, writer/director, Elissa Down, proved that she could go the distance with her debut feature film, The Black Balloon. Pulling details out of her own life, Down (who sadly hasn’t made another feature) mixed a rich visual palette with a keen sense of storytelling in this moving, honest, and often wryly amusing story about a teenager (the excellent Rhys Wakefield) dealing with his autistic brother (Luke Ford) while also trying to fan the flames of romance with a beautiful classmate (Gemma Ward). With its recognisable setting and hard-fought warmth, The Black Balloon clicked with audiences, and rated as a minor hit. It’s also a singular and highly individualised look at teenage life. “They say that you should either do your autobiographical film first or last,” Elissa Down told FilmInk. “This just felt like a first film. I decided that if I was going to tell the story, I should go for broke. This is me getting this story out of my system. It’s therapy disguised as entertainment.”

THE F.J. HOLDEN (1977) r9gls0nd

Though not your typical teen film (the movie’s kids are out of school, and work in largely unsatisfying jobs), The FJ Holden remains one of Australia’s most essential, if little known, examples of the genre. Directed in a grungy, gritty, semi-documentary style (but one still possessive of an undeniable sense of poetry) by Michael Thornhill (who had previously helmed 1974’s completely different Between Wars, and would later make the decidedly unusual The Everlasting Secret Family), the film follows Kevin (Paul Couzens) and Bob (Carl Stever), who live in working class Bankstown in south-western Sydney, and spend all their spare time restoring and cruising the streets in Kevin’s beloved FJ Holden. When Kevin meets Anne (Eva Dickinson), the boys’ lives change irrevocably. “The FJ Holden was a film about, but also for, the kids growing up in suburbs like Bankstown,” film critic, Paul Byrnes, wrote of the film. “It refuses to patronise them or condemn the suburbs as a wasteland. Michael Thornhill never loses sight of the fun that these young people are having, even if it’s not respectable.”

FAST TALKING (1984) kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk

“I was a teacher for a couple of years, and the first films that I made were in that world,” said director, Ken Cameron, in a 1996 interview. “They were not autobiographical, but semi-autobiographical, works.” Though best known for his 1982 classic, Monkey Grip (and now for the top-level TV that he produces on a regular basis), Cameron also crafted one of Australia’s zippiest, most boisterously entertaining teen flicks with 1984’s Fast Talking. The film follows fifteen-year-old Steve Carson (played with engaging energy and personality by first time actor, Rod Zuanic, who would later memorably appear as one of the feral kids in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), a juvenile delinquent who can talk his way out of pretty much anything. Wholly sympathetic to the problems faced by teenagers, Fast Talking is sadly now near forgotten. “I was very influenced by The 400 Blows, and by Ken Loach,” said Cameron. “Fast Talking was an amalgam of all those things. I was trying to graft the things that had influenced me onto the things that I saw in my own world.”

BENEATH CLOUDS (2002) beneath-clouds-movie-poster-2002-1020299094

For a film involving teenage angst and delinquency, it’s surprising how gentle and subdued Beneath Clouds is. In the striking debut of major talent, Ivan Sen (Toomelah, Mystery Road, the upcoming Goldstone), Lena (Dannielle Hall), a seventeen year-old who feels the need to escape from small town life, decides to search for her father, an Irishman living in Sydney. Vaughn (Damian Pitt) escapes from the remand centre he resides in when he hears that his mother is dying in Sydney. Hoping to reach her before she dies, he eventually crosses paths with Lena. Ivan Sen gives his film a deliberate pace and style that demonstrates a penchant for character over the traditional three-act structure. He has the gift of understatement, and this is never more evident than in the brooding performances of the actors. Not so much a journey to enlightenment, Beneath Clouds is more about the beginning of a journey that one hopes will end – outside the construct of the film – in happiness. It resonates with hope and understanding in a world of racism and Australian apathy.

MRS. CAREY’S CONCERT (2011) 1d2a48c55f6f10010887cc7d849469a1_original

While a documentary about an all-girl high school preparing for their end of year classical music performance may sound like slightly yawn-inducing material, in the hands of the legendary Bob Connolly (Facing The Music, Rats In The Ranks, Black Harvest) and his filmmaking partner, Sophie Raymond, it’s nothing short of compelling. What makes Mrs. Carey’s Concert so absorbing is that the journey is largely told through the perspective of three engaging personalities. There’s the tough-minded music teacher, Mrs. Carey, who has difficulty understanding any student’s lack of passion for her class. There is the shy but blooming maestro, Emily, who is something of a reluctant star. Finally, there’s the sassy Iris, who often refuses to participate in the tedious rehearsals. The scenes in which Iris challenges Mrs. Carey are particularly revealing, and raise questions over who is in the right. “We were filming these kids at this vulnerable period of their lives when everything is changing for them,” Bob Connolly told FilmInk. “We wanted to take the audience into their lives.”

AUSTRALIAN RULES (2002) australianrules.poster.ws_

Though a tough and telling dissection of race relations in this country, Paul Goldman’s Australian Rules is also a brave and honest teen film. Set in Prospect Creek, a small coastal town in South Australia, the local AFL team is half composed of the sons of local white (mostly racist) residents and half of aboriginal boys from the semi-segregated outlying mission. Both “sides” are aware that the “blackfellas” are there on sufferance because of their superior footy skills. The football field is the town’s racial arena but unfortunately it doesn’t stay on the pitch after the game. Much of the story is told through the eyes of Gary “Blackie” Black (Nathan Phillips), who is pro-Aboriginal in a very practical sense. His best friend is indigenous star player, Dumby Red (Luke Carroll), and his first girlfriend is Dumby’s beautiful sister, Clarence (Lisa Flanagan). No one seems to support Gary’s choices, least of all his abusive father (Simon Westaway), leading to a particularly brutal coming of age. Controversial upon release, Australian Rules is a teen flick well worth rediscovering.

THE HEARTBREAK KID (1993) HEARTBREAKKID1SH

The 1993 teen drama, The Heartbreak Kid, found great success upon its release, furthering the impressive career of Claudia Karvan (who had been brilliant in High Tide and The Big Steal) and making a star out of then-unknown, Alex Dimitriades, who had never been on screen before. The pair threw significant sparks as a teacher and student who dangerously head down the path to an unlikely romance. Despite his lack of experience, Dimitriades had screen charisma to burn, so much so that he was backed to headline a TV series based on the film. The resulting series, Heartbreak High – a popular small screen success story – retained the setting of a tough high school in a multiracial area of Sydney, and placed Dimitriades at the centre of a strong ensemble of hard-headed but largely misunderstood students, and their harried but mainly well-meaning educators. Though it became increasingly formulaic, Heartbreak High was initially a trailblazer in the world of teenage television, thanks to its racially diverse cast and full-on approach to youth issues.

IS THIS THE REAL WORLD (2016) RW_Poster     

“I’ve always been a big fan of coming-of-age films,” writer/director, Martin McKenna, told The New York Independent Film Festival website. “There is something about the transition from childhood to adulthood that is so rich and personal. It’s a bitter-sweet time. And I’m personally obsessed with the conflict between individualism and community, and school seems like a very relatable microcosm of the eternal battle between doing whatever the hell we feel like, and following the rules as decreed by an authority we might, or might not, respect.” A perfect distillation of these ideas, Is This The Real World is an instant classic in the canon of Australian teen films. Hauntingly shot and scored, the film follows rebellious teen, Mark Blazey (Sean Keenan), an intelligent kid who has just tossed away a scholarship to a private school, and now finds himself at the local public high school, much to the dismay of his single mum, Anna (Susie Porter). A beautifully realised study on the typically teenage struggle to toe the line, Is This The Real World rings with quiet poetry.

For information on the upcoming FilmInk Presents screenings of Is This The Real World, click here

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