FLIRTING (1991) A film review by Steve Rhodes Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes RATING (0 TO ****): ** 1/2 FLIRTING is a 1991 Australian film set in "Rural Australia in 1965." I read that it is a sequel to THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE, which I have not seen, but there were no references to it in this film which effectively stands alone.
At the center of FLIRTING is an interracial love story, but most of the picture is about the difficulties of living in strict boarding schools. The last part of the picture is an honest and insightful consideration of adolescent sex. Up until the last part, the picture is pure formula and reminded me of a dozen other films. The characters are pleasant enough, but very familiar. If you rent the tape, hang in there because in the last twenty minutes or so the film comes into its own and has something fresh to say.
As the film opens, a group of boys at a boy's boarding school are in a line outside one of their teacher's rooms so they can be caned for some offense. After that, they go back to their rooms and drop their drawers so that can compare scars on their buttocks. This mass mooning is pretty sophomoric film making.
The lead boy in the film, Danny Embling (Noah Taylor), is ridiculed by his fellow students since he stutters and because he lets them. In one scene he looks across the lake at the companion girl's school and muses their schools "look at each other like brooding volcanoes."
A beautiful, and free spirited girl named Thandiwe Adjewa (Thandie Newton) from Uganda comes to the girl's school. As soon as Danny sees her, he falls for her. Her father is teaching at a local University, but there are links to some vague political crisis back in Uganda. Thandiwe begins to like Danny as well until she drops him because of a misunderstanding. From there the script by the director John Duigan takes the standard turns. Little happens that you haven't seen before, and the acting, although good, is nothing special.
Nicole Kidman is kind of interesting as ultra-pretty, blonde student Nicola Radcliffe. She plays the type that teenage boys drool over, and consequently she is very stuck up. When asked if she likes a guy, she ridicules the idea with "he's only a tradesman"
As one of many ways the script just follows the standard formula, all of the teachers are mean and strict. The only question is the degree. Except for the odd show glorifying some special teacher, boarding school teachers are on par with aluminum siding salesmen, Nazis and preachers in the pecking order developed by most authors. In fact, one of the teachers in FLIRTING is imaged by Danny to be wearing a Nazi uniform.
In the last part, the film begins to break a little new ground. The girls have a frank discussion about petting, and Danny and Thandiwe have to deal with what to do with their relationship - not the interracial aspects which are almost totally ignored in the film, but the sexual. These are issues that teenagers have to grapple with today, and this film treats them tenderly and honestly. After having no meaningful music in most of the film, even the music comes alive in the end.
I had a problem with the cinematography. The nighttime sequences across the lake are filmed in luminescent darkness so that it looked like a scene from The Arabian Nights. Whereas this worked, most of the film was in sepia tones of the interiors. This looked more dreary than nostalgic which was I think was the intention of the tones.
FLIRTING runs a little long at 1:39 given the repetitive material. It is in Australian English without subtitles. I have seen a lot of non-American English shows so I was able to follow it, but it may leave some dazed and confused. The film is rated R. There is brief nudity, a little sex, mild language, and the violence of a boxing match. It is close to PG-13, and I think the show would be fine for mature kids as young as 11 or 12. Although I still can not figure out how at least one critic had this film on his best of the year's list, I did like it because the formulaic script finally had something to say toward the end. I give the show a mild thumbs up and ** 1/2.
Flirting Summary A young man is caned with a thick stick to his backside and he should be in more pain or distress than he appears, but apparently it is more or less a common ritual for him and the boys living with him. His name is Danny Embling (Noah Taylor) a teenager living in a boarding school in Australia in the mid- 1960's. Although he is a bright student, he is tormented by most of his classmates. He is not much of an athlete, does not have many friends and he has an unfortunate slight stutter for which he is given the nickname "Bird" (it is actually more like "B-B-B-Bird"). It seems like it should be a tough time for him, but he is actually doing rather well. He keeps with his studies, sees his hazing as more of a petty nuisance, and has one good friend who he confides with. His life is about to get better. Her name is Thandiwe (Thandie Newton), a pretty girl from the school across the river. It is an all-girls school that shares many social events with Danny's, and their eyes meet at a Rugby match. They do not speak until their next encounter, at a debate between the schools and it is obvious they like each other. They make a date for an upcoming dance, which almost becomes a disaster as Danny is informed that he cannot go, but the two of them sneak away from their perspective groups and spend time together. Their relationship starts out with playful flirting. The relationship develops as the couple attempt to spend as much time together as possible, usually by sneaking out of their dormitories to meet in the early morning hours, risking possible expulsion. They talk about their families a great deal, flirt and experiment with sex. They also have some difficulties, including misunderstandings regarding a letter written by Thandiwe that gets into the wrong hands, and the constant threat of other students reporting them to school officials. Danny also risks physical harm as he foolishly tries to defend his dignity and fight the school boxing champ in the ring. Of all possible events to threaten Danny and Thandiwes' relationship, it is the most unlikely that strikes a mortal blow. The political unrest in Uganda, Africa (where Thandiwe comes from) threatens her parents, who are writers that speak out against injustice. Their lives are in danger, and Thandiwe must return home to help the family in a time of need. She may not return, and Danny must deal with losing his first love.
Commentary I am a fan of most John Hughes films, but the teenagers in his films do not always act and behave like most teenagers in the real world. His films are more like teenage fantasy, and they are entertaining, but the teenagers in "Flirting" seem so real it is an absolute pleasure to watch them. The relationship between Danny and Thandiwe is very honest, sweet and well written. Dare I say that the chemistry between these two young actors was more powerful then many films concerning adult relationships? I do. One of the strengths of the movie is that not much is made of the racial differences between the teenagers. Thandiwe is African American, but the only racial stereotypes present are the occasional crude comments about the color of her skin by Danny's schoolmates. There is also an uncomfortable moment when the parents meet each other for the first time after a school play and are clearly surprised. The scene is a great example of the wonderful writing and directing, and is one of the films' best moments. Another strength is the inclusion of the political uprising in Uganda. There could have been many different ways for the relationship between the teens to be threatened, but by making it such an important event on such a large scale (and beyond their control), it makes it much more poignant and sad. Few movies about teenage love are as effective as this one. The characters seem absolutely real, as if they were in a documentary about Australian boarding schools. The two lead actors were relatively unknown this time, adding to this effect. The only recognizable face is that of Nicole Kidman, playing an upperclassman looking over Thandiwe. I could almost see this film be rewritten into a John Hughes type film, but that one would have popular young actors, a pop music soundtrack, a predictable romance and a typical Hollywood ending. You will see that watching "Flirting", and it is a real treat.
Flirting **** (out of five) Directed by John Duigan Danny Embling....................Noah Taylor Thandiwe Adjewa.................Thandie Newton Nicola Radcliffe...................Nicole Kidman Jock Blair...........................Felix Nobis
Written by Randy Turgeon, April 9, 1998.