John Duigan‘s “Flirting” is a warm coming-of-age (sorry, no better synonym) drama about two teenagers attending different private boarding schools in Australia during the 1960s. Despite its simple title, “Flirting” is not a weightless romance movie about drifting teenagers without direction or premise. It’s detailed, complex, and all-around enlightening.
Our hero is Danny Embling (Noah Taylor), an intelligent, sort of goofy looking teenager who attends the all-boy school. He’s not very popular, has little to no friends, but gets easily noticed during debates and class speeches, as he is a cunning speaker despite his stuttering habit.
The heroine is Thandiwe Adjewa (Thandie Newton). Shy but attractive, Thandiwe, who attends the twin all-girl school, first notices Danny when the students from both schools get together during one of the school functions. Once their eyes meet, a sudden attraction pulls them together which brings them to the debate conference between the two schools. Both Danny and Thandiwe are on opposite sides, yet they both give counter-arguments to their position as this becomes the most subtle form of indirect flirting I’ve ever seen in the movies.
Thandiwe’s mother was British; her stepmother is African, along with her father, who is a diplomat for the newly independent state of Uganda. We already know from the seriousness of the wars going on in Africa that it will only be a matter of time before Thandiwe’s studies get interrupted by family business.
After the debates, Danny and Thandiwe meet for the first time and plan to pursue a relationship. The relationship will of course be met by obstacles, such as the bullies, from both schools, who make Danny and Thandiwe the targets of their cruel jokes. Racism is a small issue, but it makes its point here as interracial dating wasn’t a common practice during the early 1960’s.
The genius of the film is in how the two schools are located next to each other separated by an unforgiving lake. Through the classroom windows, both schools are visible to each other which presents a forbidden tease for the students confined to their same-sex institutions. Occasionally the students from both schools are brought together, but only then is contact between the boys and girls permitted. For Danny and Thandiwe to have a thriving relationship, they must continually visit each other but with the understanding that getting caught could mean expulsion from their respective school.
Both students face their own unique hardships. As the only black student in her school (that we see anyway), Thandiwe is subjected to demeaning ridicule. But we never see it affect her, not once. She is too proud and doesn’t let her fellow classmates get the best of her. One of them is Nicola Radcliffe (Nicole Kidman), an older student who in a way feels responsible for Thandiwe’s well-being. She doesn’t approve of her late night rendezvous, but at the same time she respects the relationship and her love for Danny.
Danny’s conflicts include his small-framed body which keeps him out of sports. He eventually challenges one the biggest bullies to a boxing match, which is executed beautifully by writer/director John Duigan. When I try to think of movies with better boxing matches in it, few films come to mind.
Every character in the movie has some sort of depth to them. While today’s teen movies only show scripted hackneyed characters, “Flirting” gives even the bullies emotion and feeling. We eventually see the bullies and other school kids appreciate Danny’s relationship, and some even take the hit when an angry teacher suspects immoral behavior going on.
I completely took in every aspect of the movie. I cared for the characters, something rare in any moviegoing experience. I wanted them to succeed, and I rooted for them through every obstacle and conflict. Both Danny and Thandiwe would contrive plans, fake ailments, and do whatever they could to escape their supervision so they could finally embrace while at the same time acting in complete defiance of every school code.
Both schools are run strict and proper. The boys face painful lashings for breaking rules, and it isn’t much easier for the girls. There’s a nostalgic effect that is very enjoyable, for me because these customs are only performed in books I’ve read and other great movies I’ve seen, as going to school was a little different in my generation. Here, school dances are held under strict supervision and in complete order. As the girls walked in to meet their dates, they were first reminded, “Remember, you are ladies.” Boys could not attend if their hairstyle was not approved by one of the teachers.
“Flirting” is a great film. Everything from the acting to the production is executed perfectly. Few movies have an effect on you to where you truly care about the characters and want to know more about their lives. I have not seen “The Year My Voice Broke,” the prequel to this film, however it isn’t required to understand and appreciate everything happening here. This is a movie not to be passed up on.
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