Breaking the rules was never this fun.
Just another teen movie? I think not.
Facts of the Case
Danny Embling (Noah Taylor—Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky) is a geeky, sometimes-stuttering, Jean-Paul Sartre-loving existentialist attending the St. Albans College boarding school in Australia in the mid-1960s. Across the lake from St. Albans is the Cirencester Ladies College. The girls there, led by blonde beauty Nicola Radcliffe (Nicole Kidman—Moulin Rouge), go for the guys on St. Albans' rugby team and couldn't be less interested in the likes of Danny. Then he meets Thandiwe Adjewa (Thandie Newton—The Truth About Charlie), a Cirencester student from Uganda. He's drawn to her beauty and smarts; she to his sardonic wit and willful embrace of his own outsider status. A romance blossoms between Danny and Thandiwe but is threatened when future dictator Idi Amin begins wreaking havoc in Uganda, imprisoning and murdering his enemies, among whom is Thandiwe's father, a college professor. Her family in danger, the girl must decide whether to carry on with her education or return home, facing hardship and possibly violent death.
One of the biggest perks of reviewing DVDs is that every once in a while I'm exposed to a great little film that I probably would never have discovered if not assigned the task of reviewing it. Writer/director John Duigan's Flirting is one of those little gems. I mean, look at that cover art up there. What are the chances I'd have plucked this from the shelf at my local video rental store and taken it home? Slim to none. It looks like a slice of low-budget dreck, offering only the curiosity of early performances by Kidman and Newton, both of whom have gone on to fame and fortune. Imagine my surprise when I popped in the disc and experienced one of the funniest, smartest, most charming, and keenly-observed teen films I've seen in a long, long time.
Movies about adolescents live or die based on the richness and honesty of their details. It's easy to slap together a film built entirely of teen clichés, populate it with one-dimensional hormone-crazy characters, lace it with fart and pee-pee jokes, and pander to your key demographic's anti-authoritarian instincts. It's far more difficult to create a film that takes teens seriously as human beings, accurately presents the tangle of conflicts inside their heads and hearts, vividly evoking that sensibility and those emotions for an adult audience who's largely forgotten what those years were truly like. It requires a director with an enormous amount of control over his art, someone who can delicately weave comedy and tragedy, someone with a keen recollection of the details of his own teen life, both inside and outside his head. In this arena, John Duigan performs with nearly as much precision and honesty as François Truffaut or Cameron Crowe, the grand masters of the form. At least he does in Flirting; I haven't seen The Year My Voice Broke, the first film in an as-yet incomplete Danny Embling trilogy. (Just the fact Duigan set out with the intent to make a series of films about his protagonist suggests Embling's debt to Truffaut's Antoine Doinel).
Duigan gets all the details right, even the ones so small they seem inconsequential until you begin to feel their density and realize they underpin the truth of the world the director is rendering. Check out how Duigan shows us what Danny sees as he receives a caning from St. Albans' headmaster at the beginning of the film. We find ourselves gazing at the dust jackets of books strewn on a coffee table, and a snail creeping along the hearth of a fireplace—seemingly odd choices, unless you've ever been administered corporal punishment and remember that these are exactly the sort of meaningless things that catch your attention as your hide is being tanned.
Flirting is all about naturalism, and the film's characters reflect it. They're real as can be. We identify easily with Danny and Thandiwe. Their attraction to one another feels true, inevitable; it's allowed to simmer slowly during the course of the film (hence the title). The scenes they share are lean and deeply felt; the dialogue is smart, none of it throw-away. Sex is handled delicately and with aplomb. It's integral to the story (as it always is in teen movies), but Duigan never stoops to cheap titillation. The characters are young and new to love; they recognize each other's vulnerability and behave accordingly. Noah Taylor and Thandie Newton handle the subtleties of these interactions deftly, delivering beautifully human moments.
Duigan doesn't short-change the supporting cast either. It would be easy to paint them with a broad brush, reducing them to dumb jocks and snobby beauties. Instead, they're just kids, sometimes crass and cruel as kids can be, but not simple villains. (As a side note, in addition to Nicole Kidman's supporting turn, watch for a young Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive) as one of Thandiwe's friends).
I know I've made the movie sound overly intellectual, custom made for people who sip merlot and wear berets with black turtlenecks, but I swear it's funny, too. There are no absurdities of the apple pie-humping variety since Flirting was clearly influenced by the naturalism of the French New Wave, but there's plenty of the pranksterisms, double-entendres, and fascination with bodily functions that characterize the existences of flesh-and-blood teens everywhere. It's a good time.
Much as I'd love to say Flirting is available in a beautiful DVD, I can't. MGM has delivered an anamorphic transfer at the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but it looks like a 12-year-old, low-budget Australian movie. While I didn't see any edge enhancement, the overall image is soft and grain varies from mild to prevalent in various shots. The unrestored print from which the transfer was struck shows signs of significant deterioration in isolated shots, including thin vertical bands of faded color similar to the damage in Lawrence Of Arabia's famous mirage shot. I don't want to overstate things. The transfer's not unwatchable. It's far from perfect, but not all that surprising considering the film's roots.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track is perfectly acceptable, a solid reproduction of the way the movie must have sounded in theaters.
The only extra is a trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My only major beef with this release is the cover art. I mean, look at it up there. It's difficult to imagine a more deceptive design. For one, where's Noah Taylor? He's the star of the film. Is MGM hoping to dupe those with more prurient tastes into a rental by implying they'll be treated to a Kidman-Newton tryst? Here's a little newsflash for the raincoat crowd: it ain't gonna happen, so don't bother.
Also, that picture of Thandie Newton is just awful. She looks like a chubby-cheeked psycho-chick, Kidman's stalker. Where did they find it? I promise it's not in the movie.
Flirting's a great little film, certainly worth 99 minutes of your time. Readily available in the 15-dollar range, MGM's barebones DVD isn't a bad deal either.
The film, Duigan, cast, and crew are exonerated of any wrong-doing. MGM's marketing department, however, is found guilty of bad taste and cynical consumer manipulation.
I'm off to try and track down a copy of The Year My Voice Broke. And, hey, Mr. Duigan, how about finishing off the trilogy?
Court's in recess.
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