In 2022, Macedonian Australian filmmaker Goran Stolevski established himself as a talent to watch with his daring directorial debut, the folk horror film “You Won’t Be Alone,” about a witch body-jumping through a Macedonian village, experiencing the vast spectrum of love and cruelty life has to offer. His sophomore feature, “Of an Age,” is quite different — a high school coming-of-age story set in 1999 and 2010, about a Serbian immigrant teenager, Kol (Elias Anton), growing up in Melbourne, coming to terms with his sexuality and experiencing first love. Despite the genre contrast, there’s a commonality between the two films in the the way that Stolevski captures the aching beauty snatched in life’s darker moments — the heart of the matter remains the same, the bittersweet tone just as poignant.
“Of an Age,” which takes place over the course of two 24-hour periods set 11 years apart, is like “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” combined into one film, in which two characters are rocked by a chance encounter and reckon with it years later. The film opens with a gasp, and proceeds at a breathlessly frantic pace, as Ebony (Hattie Hook) wakes up on a strange beach after blacking out and calls Kol in a panic to come and pick her up — they’ve got to make it to their ballroom dance finals in time.
Though we initially meet Kol practicing his ballroom routine in the garage, this film is more in line with Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend” than Baz Lurhmann’s “Strictly Ballroom.” With Ebony in a harried state, Kol grabs her gear and calls upon their only option for rescue: Ebony’s enigmatic brother Adam (Thom Green), who rolls up in a station wagon to pick up Kol and collect Ebony from the beach.
Adam is gentle, unflappable and curious; his presence is a tonic for Kol, even beyond the wacky morning. The station wagon becomes a safe space to let their guard down, and the two get to know each other over the course of their drive, halting at first, and then with ease, trading references to Kafka and Borges, Adam teaching Kol about Wong Kar-wai films and French pop. He’s a linguistics PhD student about to take off for Argentina, and he’s erudite, sarcastic, funny and incredibly beautiful. Over the course of the chaotic day, Kol falls hopelessly, inevitably in love with him.
Anton skillfully embodies Kol’s warring emotions — to disappear and to be seen at once, to blend in, but evade the judgments of his macho Serbian uncles, and the racist popular kids in their “bogan” beach town. But Adam sees Kol, he pays attention to him, and it’s under Adam’s gaze that Kol blossoms.
Using a near-square 4:3 aspect ratio, Stolevski and cinematographer Matthew Chuang utilize a handheld aesthetic and almost stolen close-ups to create an intoxicating viewing experience. It’s as if we’re experiencing this relationship unfold in real time the way that Adam and Kol do, in small glances, gestures and tiny expressions, their eyes flicking to each other, reading between the lines of loaded statements.
It’s 11 years later when we see Kol again, at an airport baggage claim. He’s mature now, stylish, comfortable in his skin, sporting an earring and a sharp haircut, far more confident than the young man trying to go unnoticed back in high school. He spies Adam — what are the odds? Pretty good, actually, as they’ve both returned to Melbourne for Ebony’s wedding. What will their connection be after a decade spent on different continents?
These fleeting yet monumental moments make up the fabric of who we are, set us on one course or another, carrying memories both painful and glorious. In “Of an Age,” Stolevski dissects these charged but brief interactions with intention and attention. He taps into the common question that’s pervasive around first loves — “what if?” — but he doesn’t offer cookie-cutter closure, instead presenting a story that’s messy and authentic about the realities produced by the passage of time.
Impeccably written and beautifully performed by Anton and Green, “Of an Age” is a profoundly moving film about the beauty and the horror of what it means to be seen for the first time, to love for the first time, and how the past and future are constantly informing each other.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘Of an Age’
Rated: R, for language throughout, sexual content and some drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 17 in general release