'Flirting,' gently suffering the sweet pain of youth

January 01, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

What a difference a day makes!

If "Flirting" had opened yesterday instead of today, it might have made my top 10 list. It's terrific: a wily, compassionate story of teen life, Australian-style, prep school-style, that treats its young performers with respect, yet finds the delirious comedy in their lives while it watches as they grapple to become adults.

It's so full of eccentrics, it has to be autobiographical: Nobody, not even John Duigan, could make this stuff up. And, of course, he didn't; the film is part of a trilogy of his own life, two-thirds of which Duigan has completed. (The first entry was "The Year My Voice Broke," which I didn't see.)

The movie takes place at an isolated boy's prep separated by a small lake from an isolated girl's prep; the year is 1965.

One look at Danny Embling (Noah Taylor) and you'll know him immediately, possibly by his Anglo-American antecedents: He's J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield or he's George Orwell's George Orwell, a gangling fletch of youth who, preciously intellectual (Camus is God), hasn't bought into the herd mentality and the celebration of rugby brutality and team spirit that the Pencey Prep/St. Cyprian's analogue, called St. Alban's, is selling. He sees it as a festival of sheer meanness, a place jammed to the gills with phonies, and an expression of the bluntest political principles about power. (Duigan has an acute sense of the class and clique lines along which such a place would organize.)

Danny, with a fellow cynic, would rather sit off alone, making droll comments about the meaninglessness of it all -- that is, when not being tormented by thugs like Gilby Fryar, the school's best boxer, who has a special place in his heart for cruelty to Danny.

Ah youth! It's too painful to waste on the elderly. Duigan's vision ,, of prep school is an endless hell of tyrannical headmasters and priggish headmistresses, a world without release except through the passage of time or the arrival of . . . hmmm, yes, that's much better, a girl!

Her name is Thandiwe (Thandie Newton) and she's a beautiful Ugandan whose father, a political refugee, is lecturing at the University of Sidney. Thandiwe and Danny hit it off like other mismatched lovers from competing family groups -- Romeo and Juliet come to mind first. Of course this completely unhinges the tight little world of prep school Australia.

Yet two things are happily not within Duigan's capacity. First, he absolutely abhors the obvious and always mischievously skates away from it. For example, in one moment, Danny is paired during a dramatic production with the coolest girl in the school, the beautiful Nicola Radcliffe (played by Nicole Kidman in pre-Tom Cruise days); in an American movie, surely she would have been smitten with him (see "Sixteen Candles"). She doesn't even notice him! Later, he has to box the school's best boxer. Again, in an American film, he would have landed a miracle knockout blow. Here, he receives a knockout blow and it's no miracle.

Second, Duigan is extremely gentle at spirit. In each of his characters -- even the thugs and WASP ice princesses -- he locates a sweet spot, a small moment of human decency. It's that wonderful spirit of forgiveness that makes "Flirting" so wonderful. Such, such are the joys.

"Flirting"

Starring Noah Taylor, Thandie Newton and Nicole Kidman.

Directed by John Duigan.

Released by Goldwyn.

Unrated.

*** 1/2

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