I never attended a boarding school. I never possessed the philosophical angst of young Danny (Noah Taylor). And I certainly never had a girlfriend like Thandie Newton fall for my non philosophical and angst-ridden self. Yet, having admitted all that, John Duigan's "Flirting" still manages to inhabit a space of young adulthood that feels both exaggerated and intimate.... truthful and fitfully novel.... and, above all, aligned with the pitfalls and soaring emotions of a beautifully rendered coming-of-age tale whose moments both big and small feel like a universal framework for us all.
Pairing with young Noah Taylor a few years earlier with "The Year My Voice Broke" (1987), writer and director John Duigan presents their relationship as a sort of American Truffuat/Leaud. In "Flirting", Taylor plays the same character of Danny Embling, a moody and uninterested intellectual at a British boarding school, several years removed from his prepubescent sexual reckoning in that earlier film. Choosing to steer (mostly) clear of the jockish antics of his rugby playing peers, Danny instead buries his nose in a book. The only respite from the boys' daily helpings of testosterone-schoolmate-punishings and fart jokes lies in the queasy relationship of the girls who go to school across the way. Bunched together at chaperoned dances or sporting events, it's one of these anxious social outings that Danny is first noticed by newcomer Thandiwe (Thandie Newton). Their relationship grows slowly, flirting between the ears as opposites of their school's respective debate teams and then eventually as they constantly break the rules and sneak across the small body of water to steal time with each other.
Like most high school coming-of-age films, there are various fumblings, falling-outs and childish gossip that threaten to ruin their romance. An innocent letter sent from Thandiwe to Danny finds the wrong hands at one point, causing ridicule for Danny. The ever-watchful eye of school superiors makes it increasingly difficult for the pair to find time together. And, in a rare feat from a film written by a male, the prerogative gaze slowly shifts onto the women over the boys, creating indelible and curious portraits of young women grappling with many of the same insecurities and fallible thoughts as the young men. Supporting performances by a young Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts provide just as much intelligence about the sensitive upheavals caused by puberty, never forgetting the fragile existence of either chromosome within the battle of the sexes.
Director Duigan would go onto a strong career of minor gems ("Lawn Dogs" with Sam Rockwell anyone?), but "Flirting" remains his masterpiece. It's a film that-besides launching a number of terrific talents- has the courage and sincerity to tackle such a common subject with varying degrees of complexity. I can't say I've ever drowned myself in the works of Kafka quite like Danny Embling, but I have experienced the acute pangs of a star-crossed relationship, living through letters and second guessing every emotion and decision about said person. All that's left now is for Duigan to continue the lives of Thandiwe and Danny after all these years.