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► Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie’s Dead Aunt) is in cinemas from 11 June.
The queer past is often hard to get hold of, obscured by ignorance, hostility or self-defence. On screen, it sometimes materialises in spectral form, to a range of effects: in Longtime Companion (1989), for instance, those lost to Aids reappear in a joyous counterfactual throng, while in the YouTube series Queer Ghost Hunters (2016-), a tongue-in-cheek approach to genre accompanies the sincere unearthing of occluded lives.
Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie’s Dead Aunt) introduces a gay ghost into a tale of contemporary Australian teen angst and high-school romance: when highly strung Ellie (Sophie Hawkshaw) struggles to invite more laidback classmate Abbie (Zoe Terakes) to the school dance, she’s aided by the unexpected apparition of her late aunt Tara (Julia Billington), who combines timeless life-lessons with cringey lesbian anachronisms (no one’s into Melissa Etheridge any more). The result is intriguing and enjoyable if also gentle bordering on timid.
Written and directed by Monica Zanetti, the film benefits from engaging, sympathetic performances from Hawkshaw and Terakes, the former’s fretting and latter’s directness both convincingly rooted in varieties of vulnerability. They’re ably supported by Marta Dusseldorp, as Ellie’s mum Erica, and Rachel House, as Erica’s friend Patty, both shaped by the loss of Tara three decades before. (Men are refreshingly all but absent.)
As Tara, Billington is chipper and charismatic, but this high-concept character comes with some peculiar ambivalences. Queer ghosts tend to be vessels of queer understanding but, some fairly boilerplate relationship advice aside, Tara is curiously uninformed, not only about the peculiarities of always-online Gen Z culture but about her own existence too. Her activist life remains at a remove and she chooses to remain ignorant about her untimely death.
Learning about these does prove instructive to Ellie but in less than radical ways: her eventual acknowledgement of the value of difference finds practical expression only in the shyest of tweaks to that straight staple, the climactic school dance; similarly, the fight to defend queer space is valorised in the past, ignored in the present. As in Love, Simon (2018), contemporary homophobia is not quite acknowledged, not quite denied. Meanwhile, the film shows how Ellie’s ignorance of Tara’s life, death and work results from both structural homophobia and her traumatised loved ones’ need to breathe. Queer erasure can be a matter not just of bigotry but, tragically, of self-care too.
Sight & Sound June 2021
In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy