Ana Kokkinos’ short feature film Only The Brave (1994) opens in darkness with an expressive soundscape composed of soft, breathy murmurs and indeterminate words. These noises seem unmistakably like the secret whispers of girls. The film’s first recognisable images are a silver moon and a group of teenagers bathed in cool blue light. These are Ana Kokkinos’ wild girls. These are the kinds of girls that sneak out at night to cause trouble. We see them gathered around a sparked match, watching the flame flicker orange at their fingertips. They pause for a moment and their faces are illuminated by its glow. The film’s title cuts in here, scrawled in yellow-orange text as if drawn from the fire that the girls have ignited.
Only The Brave presents audiences with a unique perspective of adolescent girlhood. The film follows an intimate and intense friendship between protagonists Alex (Elena Mandalis) and Vicki (Dora Kaskanis), best friends growing up in Melbourne’s industrial suburban fringe. Through these characters Kokkinos both upholds and complicates established archetypes of girlhood. The figure of the adolescent girl has become “marker of immature and malleable identity” in Western culture.1 However, mainstream film largely presents a narrow image of adolescent femininity while marginalising those who do not fit this formation.2 Both of Kokkinos’ primary characters operate within existing cultural and indeed cinematic images of girlhood. Alex excels in school, has a passion for literature and seeks respect from her English teacher, Kate (Maude Davey). Vicki leads the gang of wild girls, she revels in sexual excess and rebels against authority. Similar figures exist within most films about youth. However, both of Kokkinos’ characters are also the daughters of Greek migrants. Their wildness is sparked by troubled home lives, revealed in glimpses throughout the film. Alex yearns for her estranged mother who abandoned her at a young age, leaving only memories, photos and a red dress. Vicki’s father is cruel and cold. He abuses her in the dead of night. Both girls deal with their home lives by acting out. They self-destruct and light fires to feel different kinds of pain. They dream of running away up north to Sydney, a city imagined as a sort of teenage utopia.
These characters reflect Kokkinos’ cinematic preoccupation with Greek-Australian migrant life and have a particular connection to her own experiences as an adolescent girl, as she explains in an interview with Screen Director magazine in 1998:
[Only The Brave] explores some of my personal obsessions and the landscape that I grew up in. I had not seen a contemporary Australian film reflecting some of the experiences that I felt close to. I was trying to express something that was coming from within…I felt that up until that point working class female protagonists, their point of view and their perspective had been neglected.3
Alex and Vicki run wild when they are together. They party, drink, smoke dope, and set fires throughout the wastelands of Melbourne’s Western suburbs. There is a distinct queerness to their friendship. This is tangible throughout the film but first emerges in its fiery opening. The girl gang look on at their destructive blaze, their bodies rendered as silhouettes before the roaring fire. Then Alex steps away from the group and is framed by the camera as an isolated figure. We see a close up of Alex’s illuminated face, followed by an image of Vicki’s silhouetted body shot in medium close up. She runs her fingers through her hair. Kokkinos slows down this gesture, abstracting it as an almost erotic movement. This is very clearly a queer point of view and the first glimpse of Alex’s desiring gaze. Though Alex’s queerness is rarely spoken of (the only time it is explicitly mentioned is in a scene where she is beaten up by girls who call her a “lezzo”), her desire is present through gestures and framing throughout the film.
Like most films about youth, Only The Brave is interested in questions of identity, framed through a narrative that foregrounds coming of age – or the idea that one’s self is discovered through the liminal experience of ‘growing up.’ Adrian Martin describes this quality of teen cinema quite beautifully when he explains that:
in one way or another, most teen stories are about what cultural theorists call the liminal experience: that intense, suspended moment between yesterday and tomorrow, between childhood and adulthood, between being a nobody and a somebody, when everything is in question, and anything is possible.4
Only The Brave engages with this idea of liminality, but it is not about the possibility of youth. This film gives a sense of being caught in a liminal space between worlds, or of being pulled in multiple directions at once. As Brian McFarlane argues, Kokkinos’ films often “plunge their characters into all kinds of darkness, where a sense of ultimate self may be found, or more disturbingly, lost.”5 For Alex, this sense of self is both found and lost between desire and expectation. She is caught between childhood and adulthood; between her love of literature and her rebellious girl gang; between her Greek heritage and her suburban Australian location; between her queer feelings and the expectation to conform to heterosexuality. These dualities are also reflected in Kokkinos’ mise-en-scene: orange and blue lighting, brightness and shadow, fences and framing devices that break apart settings.
What is most remarkable about Only The Brave is Kokkinos’ refusal to paint the world of her adolescent protagonists through a nostalgic frame. As Lisa French asserts, Only The Brave lacks the romanticism of many coming-of-age films, instead providing a “rare and dark social realist insight into being young, lesbian and Greek.”6 Kokkinos replaces the nostalgia of the coming-of-age film with menace, drawing attention to the instability and danger of adolescence by ruminating on fires and the girls who light them. Both shine bright but ultimately burn themselves to the ground, a notion that is most explicit in the film’s final moments wherein Alex is witness to Vicki’s devastating act of self-immolation. The result is an arresting image of youth in the 1990s through which Kokkinos captures a wildness and queerness bristling at the edges of girlhood.
- Catherine Driscoll, Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 2. ↩
- Sarah Hentges, Pictures of Girlhood: Modern Female Adolescence on Film (Jefferson: McFarland, 2006), p. 13. ↩
- Tony Katsigiannis, “Ana Kokkinos – Her Journey from Melbourne’s Western Suburbs to Cannes,” Screen Director (June-July 1998): p. 6. ↩
- Adrian Martin, Phantasms: The Dreams and Ddesires at the Heart of our Popular Culture (Ringwood: McPhee Gribble Publishers, 1994), p. 68. ↩
- Brian McFarlane, “All in the Family: Three Women Directors,” Meanjin 69.3 (2010). ↩
- Lisa French, “The international reception of Australian women film-makers,” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 28.5 (2014): p. 657. ↩