‘Ellie And Abbie’ Is A Rom-Com That’s All About Queer Joy
"So many, if not all the other queer roles or trans roles that I've played on screen have had a fucked up ratio of joy to trauma,” says Zoe.
I’ve always found heterosexual rom-coms kind of fascinating.
It’s not that I don’t want to see my community represented — I love that for us — it’s just that growing up with lesbian mothers, lesbian representation was everywhere, hanging out in my backyard, making me dinner in the kitchen, organising queer family meet ups on the weekends. And as a teenager, a lot of that representation was a bit icky cos, like, my mums and their friends doing kissing? No thanks.
Straight kissing, though? Straight sex? How illicit and naughty and unnatural. Gimme!
Now that I’m an adult, though, I’m bloody loving the representation fiesta that is the last decade or so of television and film. Queer creatives are killing it, and with an increase of our voices and perspectives behind the camera (rather than just another cis-het actor getting an Oscar for portraying our trauma), we’re getting enough variety that that buzzword “representation” is less about numbers and more about content – we can discuss what a queer film says or does rather than just being grateful it even exists.
Director Monica Zanetti and actor Zoe Terakes are just two of those queer creatives on the up, demonstrated by their giddy — yet off-the-record — response when I asked what projects are next on the horizon. Thrilling film and TV opportunities with a bevvy of celebrity collaborators were listed but with quick clarification, “Oh, I don’t think I can talk about that yet,” or “I think we announce that next week.”
The project that brought them together, though, wasn’t a strategic career-building move. The little lesbian rom-com that could, Ellie and Abbie (and Ellie’s Dead Aunt) is described by lead actor Zoe as “a happy accident and labour of love.”
“It just unfolded and we were all doing it for no money” — they pause to check with Monica that it’s ok to say that. It is.
“We were in there winging it and hoping for the best that it was going to be something.”
And something it is, managing to secure an Australia-wide release despite premiering the year cinemas shut across the globe. And all this, for a film that started as a play Monica produced herself in a tiny theatre in Sydney.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to get it made as a film,” she says. “So I was like, ‘I’ll write it as a play and put it on and then no one can say no to me because I’m doing it myself’.”
This attitude, combined with an irrepressible desire for “more lesbian rom-coms” and some helpful queer community connections saw the film being made with a stellar cast despite its humble beginnings (Marta Dusseldorp! Rachel House!).
The film itself is a charming take on the well-worn coming out narrative, with teenager Ellie visited by the ghost of her titular dead aunt the night before she plans to ask Abbie (played by Terakes) to the formal.
Like a fairy godmother, Ellie’s aunt attempts to guide her, but with the somewhat dated expectations of a lesbian who died in the late 80s — Ellie is at first dismissive, claiming that being gay really isn’t a big deal nowadays. And she only develops a deeper understanding of her new ghost relative when [spoiler alert] she finds out her aunt died at a protest for gay rights in 1989.
There’s a lot to take in here, but what’s delightful is that the coming out isn’t the main event, and that by juxtaposing Ellie’s experiences with her aunts, we get a nod to the trauma queers often experience, while also celebrating the massive inroads to equality made over time.
“When I was writing it, I wanted it to be simple and fun and light, because that’s my experience [of being queer]. But I only have that experience because of all the people that didn’t have that experience. And so it seemed pretty short-sighted to not honour that make that a part of the story.”
The film is dedicated to Monica’s gay uncle (or ‘guncle’) and it’s as much an homage to that relationship as it is a teen romcom: the older gay relative, or chosen family, who takes a young LGBTIQ person under their wing and helps them understand queer community and culture. Instead of centring the potential pitfalls of coming out, the film shows how community takes care of its own, and also allows a lot of the growth to happen peer to peer between Ellie and Abbie.
“I was drawn to it because so many, if not all the other queer roles or trans roles that I’ve played on screen have had a fucked up ratio of joy to trauma,” says Zoe. “And sure, it’s a true story, but it’s not the only story. And I don’t know why I ended up in this position where now I have to cry for the duration of the shoot. Because I don’t cry for the duration of my life, and I’m queer and trans. I was drawn to this film because it’s about joy.”
“It’s not leading anyone down the garden path,” they hasten to add. “It’s honest about what a privileged queer experience is. But at the same time, and I say this in every fucking interview about this movie, this is the film I wish I had when I was 13, 14, 15, because it would have been nice to know that we were allowed to experience joy. The stuff we were ingesting at that age, I was like, ‘Okay, so I’m destined to a life of either rape, depression or death.’ So, yeah, it’s nice to know that I can get the girl and go to formal.”
This past week, many have marked the third anniversary of the plebiscite vote on marriage equality — with a mixture of joy, sadness, resentment and indifference. Meanwhile, Clea Duvall and Kristen Stewart are makin’ the yuletide gay, Mardi Gras will be staged in the SCG (an announcement made to mixed response), we’re getting a Black lesbian James Bond, and a three week queer comedy festival just wrapped up at Sydney venue Giant Dwarf, selling out nearly every night. We’re everywhere, and our numbers are growing.
Ellie and Abbie is incredibly sweet, so it won’t be every queer revolutionary’s cup of tea, but that’s the beauty of power in numbers: we can choose what art we engage with, we can show the full breadth of the queer experience, and for those of us who bloody love a cute rom-com, we get to experience a little joy.
ELLIE AND ABBIE (AND ELLIE’S DEAD AUNT) is screening at festivals and cinemas across the country in November. Visit ellieandabbie.com.au for cinema and session details.
Maeve Marsden is a writer and theatremaker, and the producer of Queerstories, an award-winning LGBTQI+ storytelling project and podcast. She tweets from @maevemarsden.