This lesbian teen rom-com is everything Love, Simon wasn’t

‘Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie’s Dead Aunt)’ tackles queer history while giving its leads a love story to remember.

by Alim Kheraj
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23 March 2020, 1:30pm

It’s already pretty clear but just in case you missed it: the rom-com is very much back. Thanks to Netflix’s dedication to churning out content, we’ve been inundated with enough romantic comedies to have us feeling like it’s the mid 90s all over again. Always Be My Maybe, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Someone Great, Set It Up and the underrated Falling Inn Love (in which popstar Christina Milian does up an inn in New Zealand, obviously) have reminded us that rom-coms needn’t be humourless or trite, and can the provide joyful moments of escapism which are needed more than ever.

Thankfully, unlike in the mid-90s, gay love stories haven’t been left out of the mix. In 2018, Love, Simon, became the first gay teen rom-com to be released by a major movie studio. Netflix gave us Alex Strangelove soon after, while this year The Thing About Harry premiered on American streaming service Hulu. In fact, Love, Simon has even spawned its own TV spin-off. As a genre, the gay rom-com has got legs. However, while these films have all broken ground and helped tell essential gay stories, they all have one thing in common: they’re all focused on cisgender, white men. Which is why we’re all the more excited about new Australian romantic comedy Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie’s Dead Aunt). The film not only places lesbians and women at the heart of its story, but unlike many of the queer rom-coms from the last few years, acknowledges the treacherous journey that LGBT+ folk have travelled to get to a point where a sweet romantic comedy is even possible.

The film’s premise is quite simple: teenage Ellie fancies a girl in her class (Abbie) and wants to ask her to go to the school formal with her. After blurting this out to her mum, coming out to her in the process, she hides in the bathroom, only to be visited by the ghost of her dead aunt. With the aunt's interference, Ellie’s attempts to ask Abbie to the formal become complicated.

“We don’t have any real rom-coms for queer women, and definitely none made in Australia,” says director and writer Monica Zanetti over the phone. “I remember when gay Australian film Holding the Man had just come out. Then not long after that, Love, Simon. There were these uplifting stories about gay men, and I was just like, ‘Man, all the lesbian films are just so sad’.”

Monica, who studied as an actor before becoming a director, has only made one low budget feature film before this. “I wasn't quite sure I had another film in me,” she says, “and so I thought, I'm gonna write a play because I know I can do that.” The play was a small affair, but after its run of a few weeks in a theatre in Sydney, it became clear that there was more to this story. “A lot of people kept saying that it felt like a film script. They kept saying, ‘Just make it as a film.’ And I was like, ‘Okay fine, I'll make it into a film’.”

After the adaptation process, Monica set out to secure funding. She knew that at least 50% of the cast had to be LGBT+. Unsurprisingly, it was here she stumbled across difficulty. The distributors and sales agents that she approached would only give her funding if she secured big named stars for the roles. They even wanted her to rewrite one of the characters, Ellie’s mother, as a man. “I wasn’t going to do that and I wasn’t going to compromise,” she says. “These people are always like, ‘We want to support diversity, we’re all about a film like this and we’d love to support! But you’re the diversity and we can get a famous person to be in it!’ I was just sick of this constant thing where people take queer stories and then don’t put queer people in them.”

So instead, Monica crowdfunded the whole film. For the titular Ellie, she cast Sophie Hawkshaw, who played the role on stage, while relative newcomer Zoe Terakes was cast as Abbie. They shot the film in two weeks. “Female filmmakers, man,” Zoe says. “They just do it faster and they do it better. It was full on. We had no time to stop, breathe or do anything, but they did it and it looks beautiful. I don't know how they did it, but they did.”

As Zoe’s first feature film, it meant a lot to them to be involved. “I'm not just playing a zombie in a horror movie. It's something that you wish you had when you were younger and it means a lot to put it out into the world,” they say. In the play, Abbie’s character wasn’t as fully-formed, so Monica decided to flesh the role out for the movie. While Ellie’s coming out is treated as a non-issue, with the character just accepting her sexuality, Abbie’s journey was added for contrast to showcase that while some LGBT+ folk can come out easily and get on with life, others still struggle with shame and fear. As a result, she’s an enigma to Ellie. “Any potential mystery is because she's fucking scared,” Zoe adds. “She had her right to be loud and flamboyant taken away from her a bit, so she is hiding to a degree in her mysticism.” Ellie, on the other hand is forthcoming. “I wish I had the blind self-confidence that Ellie seems to have,” Sophie, who plays the character, says. “That's something that I love. She's never wrestling with her sexuality and she feels very confident in that.”

Of course, this isn’t a classic rom-com, in that there’s a ghost in it. The role of Ellie’s dead aunt is played by Julia Billington, who tethers the film to LGBT+ stories of the past. At a crucial moment in the film, Ellie, who believed that her aunt died in a car crash, learns that she was actually a queer activist. “My uncle is a gay man and lived a very hard life before me,” Monica says, “so that was the basis for that character. He had fought very hard for equality and he sadly lost his partner to HIV. I just thought that I wanted to write something -- not specifically his story -- but that honoured the people that came before me, basically.”

What many people outside of Australia don’t know is that the country has its very own version of the Stonewall Riots. In 1978, at the first Mardi Gras in Sydney, there were riots following police brutality towards the LGBT+ community. In the film, we also see a glimpse of the 1989 “Cleansing March”, an attempt from evangelicals to clear Sydney of homosexuality and sin.

Queer people often have to go looking for their histories, and for Zoe, as a non-binary person, it was one of the most important aspects of the film. “Textbooks are often from a very specific point of view: a cisgender, straight, white, male one. That comes down to talking about indigenous rights -- we didn't learn about that in school -- and we didn't learn a thing about queer history in school either,” they say. “So I think to get your knowledge and to get an accurate depiction of that knowledge, you don't turn to a textbook but you turn to art. I think it's one of the only forms in which the stories are told by the people who it's about.”

Ultimately, though, Ellie and Abbie is a film that’s filled with positivity. While it broaches important and weighty topics, it does so with a light, if reverential, touch. It’s why the romantic comedy is such a good genre for queer stories: it allows for a unique balance not often found in cinema.

“I grew up watching queer movies and they were always about deep-rooted pain, self-hatred, disgust and internalised homophobia and shame. It's a message that I wish I hadn't heard when I was younger and it's not a message that I want to keep telling younger audiences,” Zoe says. “But we turn to those stories because there's nothing else. I think it's so vital that there are a variety of queer stories. And a lot of them, not all of them, but a lot of them should be about joy. A lot of the queer experience is joy. And, yes, there is the pain and the shame, but that is just one part of it. It doesn't have to occupy the whole narrative. So I think it's really important that we have rom-coms that a 14-year-old can watch with their mum, just like a straight 14-year-old can watch High School Musical with their parents.”

Monica agrees: “Even though we have more queer cinema, in the family film space it's still lacking, and particularly for stories about women. There are so many lesbian films that I love but there is not one I could watch with my mum. So in a way, it still means that you watch it by yourself; it’s still excluding you a little bit. I wanted this to be something that you could watch with your mum or your grandma if you wanted, so it didn't have that aspect of isolation that sometimes comes with queer cinema.”

While Love, Simon and Call Me by Your Name were both accused of not being queer enough, or of not accurately portraying the LGBT+ experience, Ellie and Abbie provides a story without the shackles of the closet. At the same time it realises, and pays tribute to, the battles that queer forbearers fought for stories like this to be able to be told. “I think the most important lesson of all,” Monica says, “is that Ellie can have an easy love story now because there were people who couldn't have an easy love story before her.”

Above all, this is teenagers looking for a lifeline on screen that doesn’t exist (yet) IRL. “A lot of people have said that this is the film they wish they'd had when they were 15,” Sophie concludes. “I hope that young queer people will be able to watch this film and see a bit of themselves in Ellie and Abbie. I hope it'll be a film that they'll look back on as a formative film for them, like we look back on Mean Girls as formative films of our youth.”

Ellie and Abbie was due to screen at BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival 2020, which was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You can follow the film’s socials for updates on a later release at Ellie and Abbie and @ellieandabbiemovie. BFI Flare have launched BFI Flare at home on BFI Player with a selection of titles from this year’s programme, further details here.

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Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie’s Dead Aunt)