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Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) review – delightful and distinctive queer romcom

Jinghua Qian
·4-min read

There are two love stories in Monica Zanetti’s queer teen romcom, Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt).

One, of course, is the budding romance between Sydney high schoolers Ellie and Abbie. The other is the intergenerational affection, respect and solidarity that develops between these teenagers and the queers that came before them – in particular, Ellie’s lesbian aunt Tara, who died in the 80s long before Ellie was born. The two narratives wind around each other in a sweet and daggy double helix.

Related: Growing up, a lesbian romcom could have changed my life. This new Australian film made me weep | Rebecca Shaw

Sophie Hawkshaw plays Ellie, a swotty school captain whose best friend is her mum (a harried and hilarious Marta Dusseldorp). Ellie is obsessed with trite Instagram affirmations about asking the universe to manifest abundance, and even more so with her puckish yet surprisingly earnest classmate Abbie (played by nonbinary actor Zoe Terakes), who’s currently serving a week in detention for calling the principal the C-word.

After Ellie comes out to her mum, her aunt Tara (Julia Billington) comes back from the dead as a “fairy godmother” to help guide her in woman-loving ways. But there’s a bit of culture shock on both sides: Tara’s unsolicited and anachronistic dating advice revolves around references to KD Lang and Melissa Etheridge, while Ellie argues that she doesn’t need any help because “there’s like five other gay kids in my year”. She reckons she’s fine. Fine and normal and no different from anyone else.

Ellie’s living lesbian aunt, family friend Patty (the iconic Rachel House, who you would know from just about every Taika Waititi film), doesn’t do much better at looking out for Ellie’s tender feelings, though she does provide a warm, cut-the-crap presence in the family’s life.

Zanetti, who wrote and directed the film, cleverly plays with the idea that our queer predecessors paved the way for how we live now, but as individuals can be just as bumbling and out of touch as anyone else when it comes to dealing with teenagers. We might idolise OWLs (“older wiser lesbians”) but they’re only flightless, bug-eyed humans after all. And besides, even within the same generation, every person’s experience is wildly different, as Ellie and Abbie’s stories reveal. We don’t automatically “get it” unless we try.

The romcom format allows the film to explore these different tensions with teasing fondness. Both love stories have to hurdle over crossed wires and missed connections, and they’re presented with humour and heart. In particular, the physical comedy brings some big laughs that balance the heavier parts of the story, while the banter between Abbie and Ellie deserves to go down in the annals of the romcom genre. There have been quite a few lesbian films marketed as comedies in recent years (Duck Butter; The Feels) that are sort of low-key whimsical without really being funny so it’s a relief to find one that actually makes you laugh and even snort a little bit. Bridie Connell is a standout here as the highly strung schoolteacher Miss Trimble, while Terakes delivers equal parts dweeb and heartthrob as the conscientious delinquent equestrian love interest. It’s a charmingly specific character I’ve never seen before in the infinite yearbook of high school movie types.

Earlier this year, Ellie & Abbie was the first Australian film to open Mardi Gras film festival, and it’s impressed audiences at other festivals around the country, including this month’s Melbourne Queer film festival. The film is distinctively Australian without being annoying about it. Especially on the well-trod turf of teen films, where the hegemonic American high school experience casts a long shadow, it’s refreshing to see a story that plays to the familiar strengths of the genre without diluting its sense of place to make it more palatable overseas. The film explicitly nods to Hollywood on occasion – there’s a cheeky reference to The Breakfast Club, and in one early scene a teacher chides the students for calling their formal a “prom” – but mainly the story just offers a glimpse of Australian adolescence, littered with L-plates and F-words, without contrasting it against anything else.

The script shows the same finesse in writing queer life as something rich and distinctive; not in contrast to a heterosexual norm, but nonetheless unique and meaningful. One of my biggest pet peeves in film and television is the trope of the character or relationship that “just so happens to be gay”, which people use as a shorthand to describe narratives that aren’t solely defined by their queerness, but which actually does the opposite, building queer stories on a straight mould and defining them by their departure from heteronormativity. Instead, Ellie & Abbie celebrates queer love – romantic, familial, and intergenerational – in all its distinction. It’s nice, it’s different, and it’s delightful.

• Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) will be available on VOD platforms including iTunes and Google Play from 2 December