★★★★ / ★★★★
Danny (Noah Taylor) does not exactly fit in in an all-boys boarding school. Unlike everyone else, he fails to feel the excitement toward, for example, watching a football game. He would rather spend time reading books by renowned writers, philosophers, and scientists while yearning for interactions with women in an all-girls boarding school located just across the lake. His peers notice his distance and sees it as a sign of weakness. They bully Danny, both in significant and small ways, in order not to stick out themselves. Something changes when Danny meets Thandiwe (Thandie Newton), a girl from Uganda, after a rousing school debate about human passion and intellectual pursuits. He is in love.
Written and directed by John Duigan, the beauty of “Flirting” is that it does not feel like a sequel to its predecessor, “The Year My Voice Broke.” It stands on its own because the growth the characters experience, not restricted to the central boy and girl in question, feel believable. Each person is insecure about something whether it be about their body, the way they come off to others in social settings, or weighing their worth as young people still in the process of trying to find their own voices.
The romance between Danny and Thandiwe is worth rooting for because there is a certain innocence in the way they interact even though crave to do more with each other physically. Sometimes they are able to hide their emotions and intentions convincingly. Part of its brilliance is that we see the couple being uncomfortable through their body language but they are unable to see it in each other because they are too busy measuring and trying to hide their own fears. Yet there are other instances when they become very comfortable with each other. Their friends come up to them, ask what is going on, and the couple admit, “We were just flirting” so matter-of-factly. There is something about that directness that feels new and unpretentious compared to other teenage romantic movies that try too hard to be complicated through will-he-or-won’t-she tango of torpid triteness.
Danny having white skin and Thandiwe having dark skin is an issue. They are smart enough to expect a certain level of backlash. The racism is not dealt with directly given the story’s time and place but it is certainly there. Since the filmmakers at times place the issue between and under formalities, the racism’s ugliness become that much more maddening when the central couple encounters them.
The more obvious scenes of discrimination involve the girls telling Thandiwe that she belongs in the zoo and that her appearance is comparable to a monkey’s. “Does anyone have a banana?” asks one of the girls with a smile of bigotry painted across her plain face. Less obvious affront involves the headmistress giving Thandiwe a rather serious–and misplaced–lecture about representing her country of origin, accompanied by a punishment, after she is caught walking around school grounds during a dance at the boys’ school. I argue that if Thandiwe had been white, while there would still have been some sort of punishment for ignoring the rules, the headmistress would not have talked about where the girl came from and who or what she represented.
“Flirting” is a wonderful film because the characters and the screenplay have something meaningful to bring up and talk about. It is not just about someone being swooped off her feet. It is about fighting the tide because someone out there is worth it.