Back in 2009, director Craig Boreham made the acclaimed short film Drowning, starring Miles Szanto and Xavier Samuel (who went on to appear in the likes of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and Fury). Teenage Kicks is the long-gestating feature-length version of that short, which despite the passage of eight years brings back Szanto in the central role. It continues Australia’s recent run of strong, sometimes raw, gay-themed films.
Mik (Szanto) is a young, second generation immigrant, who’s keen to get away from his family and head off somewhere new with his best friend Dan (Dan Webber). Things change however when Mik’s brother dies in an accident – a collision Mik witnessed but pretends that he didn’t.
The teenager finds himself in an increasingly difficult situation, where he is pushed towards filling the hole left behind by his brother, while also being told that he will never be the man his sibling was. Simultaneously he struggles with his feelings for Dan, which get even more complicated when Dan gets a girlfriend. As Mik negotiates his burgeoning sexuality, he must also deal with the guilt he feels over the death of his brother, while figuring out what sort of man he’s going to be.
There’s certainly a lot going on in Teenage Kicks, with writer/director Craig Boreham creating a multi-layered portrait of a 17-year-old man who seems to be getting pressure from all sides. With the death of his brother, Mik suddenly finds himself in a new situation – called to step up to the plate in the family business, and feeling the need help his brother’s pregnant girlfriend, while also still dealing with teenage confusion and the fact his father doesn’t seem to like him.
If you were going to level one criticism at Teenage Kicks, it’s that there’s almost too much going on. In less assured hands, the increasing levels of difficulty and trauma heaped upon Mik could have come across as melodramatic and difficult to believe. Thankfully though, Boreham’s steady direction and a very sympathetic performance by Miles Szanto, pull the whole thing together. It ensures that while things get increasingly complicated for Mik in a variety of ways, the film manages to increase your empathy for him, rather than making you incredulous that it’s all happening to one person.
Teenage Kicks keeps a very careful balance, so that Mik isn’t presented as a plaster saint that the world is out to destroy. He has a tough life, but he isn’t just a passive victim. He makes choices – some good and many bad – as he attempts to find a new position in the world, and work out who he is. He’s an essentially good person, prone to making the wrong choice or not thinking through what he’s doing. Even when it takes him into situations that could have seemed bizarre or perverse – such as when he strips naked and makes a pass at his brother’s pregnant girlfriend – it makes sense within the context of the film and the situation Mik finds himself in.
The script ensures that all the characters around Mik have multiple layers. For example, Mik’s father is horrible to him, but the film shows there’s more to it than just an arbitrary hatred, and it isn’t really to do with Mik himself. Similarly with Mik’s relationship with Dan, there are moments when the latter seems like a bit of a cocktease who knows how Mik feels and is keeping him hanging. However, Dan is also a young man on the edge, making perhaps dubious choices in the hope of being able to build a life of his own. It also means that throughout the film there’s a growing sexual tension between then that needs to be dealt with.
Things do go a little too far towards the end, including a scene between Mik and Dan that might well have been seen as reprehensible if it had been between a man and a woman. There’s a slight sense that the film has raised so many issues and taken Mik in so many directions that it’s become almost impossible for it to pull everything together and tie up all the loose ends.
Some viewers may find some of the things that happen in the final 15 minutes a little difficult to believe, but it does manage to deal with all the key aspects and themes in a convincing, if sometimes raw or ambivalent, manner. By the end, as with many of the other choices the characters make, you may wish they’d made a different decision, but you can understand why things end up the way they do.
Overall Verdict: An involving portrait of a young man trying to find his place in the world in difficult circumstances. It may go a little far at times, but it’s an intriguing and often raw gay film that’s worth a watch.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac