Had it been made a decade or two ago, it’s easy to imagine Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) (★★★★☆) probably would have been a very different film. This is not lost on writer and director Monica Zanetti, whose sense of the past and present realities of what it means to be young and gay is apparent throughout. The film revolves around high-schooler Ellie (Sophie Hawkshaw) who has a crush on her friend and classmate Abbie (Zoe Terakes) and must summon the courage to both come out to her mother and ask Abbie to the school formal. Luckily for Ellie, the ghost of her dead lesbian aunt Tara (Julia Billington) shows up to dispense sage advice. Tara is quick to take exception to the label of “ghost,” stating that she prefers to be thought of as a fairy godmother, which becomes one of many recurring gags delivered skillfully by the instantly likeable Billington.
There’s plenty of humor in Tara’s well-meaning cluelessness running up against Ellie’s adolescent impetuousness, but some heavier subject matter disrupts the lightheartedness of the low-stakes drama of Ellie’s crush on Abbie. Revelations about Tara cause Ellie to see her in a new light and shake both her own confidence and her friendship with Abbie.
Despite Ellie’s very real and legitimate struggles, the film keeps its focus broad and remains mindful of the long arc of what it means and has meant to be gay. Although played for laughs, Ellie’s intergenerational relationship with an older (albeit dead) gay family member becomes a lens for exploring the struggles that were necessary to get society to a place where it is taken for granted that Ellie can ask a girl to the prom.
Even when the film brings up the past it never comes off as particularly preachy, and neither is it dismissive of the issues still faced by young queer people. It starts from the baseline assumption that — in modern, suburban Australia at least — someone like Ellie is unlikely to face much outright vitriol for coming out, and her biggest fear in asking Abbie to the formal is the near-universal fear of rejection. But starting from this assumption allows the film to explore more subtle shades of homophobia and shed light on the struggles that still exist.
Heartfelt performances from a mostly-LGBTQ cast lend the film a sense of immediacy and warmth. The real key to the film’s success, however, is director Zanetti’s compassion and empathy, which allow her to deliver a film that is light-hearted without being dismissive, and poignant without being preachy. In Ellie & Abbie, she skillfully weaves together comedy and drama to tell a beautiful, affirming story of young love.
Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) screens as part of this year’s Reel Affirmations Film Festival. For more information about the festival or to purchase tickets or festival screening passes, visit https://reelaffirmations.eventive.org.
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