Dramarama is showing at BFI Flare now; book tickets here
Thinking back to when I was 17, one thing is clear; my friends were my world; our day trips into London, small cosy house parties and trips to the cinema full of laughter, debate and joy. However, nothing is more certain in life than the reality that friendships change over time. And for many of us, the biggest change comes as we pack our bags and head to college or University. The old world born from our school days, bedroom dreams and fight for independence suddenly transformed as the world opens up before us. For me, I remember the feeling of being torn in two, wanting to leave the town that now felt like a prison while feeling unsure of the road ahead. My small circle of friends a comfort blanket that I knew I had to give up in defining my future.
On leaving for University, I remember the excitement, fear and hope of the journey, shielding the butterflies in my stomach from my parents with a confident disguise. I also remember telling myself that my friends would always be there and that we would always meet again. But, in truth, apart from a few meetings and days out, we all slowly drifted apart. The glue that had held us together (the town of our birth) a distant memory as we built new, more confident lives.
The friends I made at University stayed with me, and while we all now live in separate parts of the country, we keep in touch. But, the older I get, the more I find my mind drifting back to the friends I had as a teenager and the innocence, optimism and fun of pretending to be worldly and wise. In truth, we were all still hiding, discovering ourselves, our wants, desires and beliefs. Our small group’s safety embedded in the need to belong in a scary big world of difficult choices.
Few films in recent years have managed to take me back to those confusing, exciting and emotional days before University, as much as Jonathan Wysocki’s Dramarama. His sharp, theatrical and beautiful exploration of endings and beginnings delicate, tender, humorous and radiant. The delightful screenplay exploring the final days of teen life through a winsome lens; themes of belief, sexuality, acceptance, and fear surrounding each character. The result, a bright and bold exploration of the people we once were and the place we once called home, as Wysocki unlocks our memories.
The year is 1994, the place California, and the summer is drawing to an end as Autumn nips at its heels. In his bedroom 17-year-old, Gene (Nick Pugliese) stands wearing nothing but a pair of white boxer shorts. His private thoughts a jumble as he prepares for a final murder mystery slumber party with his high school friends and drama club peers. On arrival, Gene finds the afternoon’s dramatic events in full swing; hostess Rose (Anna Grace Barlow) dressed as Miss Faversham, the quiet, unassuming Claire (Megan Suri) dressed as Lewis Caroll’s Alice, his best friend Oscar (Nico Greetham) dressed as Sherlock Holmes and the sassy Ally (Danielle Kay) dressed in a flowing red gown.
Gene, who was due to be a pirate, arrives wearing braces, a cravat and eyeliner. Rose scowling at his lateness while questioning why the planned pirate is suddenly the Dr Jekyll Gene introduces. However, for Gene, Dr Jekyll fits his current state of mind, for tonight, he desperately wants to introduce his friends to his Mr Hyde as he finally comes out of the closet. There’s one problem, his friends are all religious, their lives held in a bubble of innocence, a bubble Gene has begun to grow weary of as he accepts his own needs. And when Gene’s older, more streetwise friend JD (Zak Henri) unexpectedly arrives delivering pizza, the group find their loyalties tested like never before. Their sheltered teenage lives and Christian views questioned as the real world invades their party.
Dramarama quickly establishes its central characters, their friendship believable and rich in jokes, barbed comments, and unspoken love. At the same time, the complexity of Gene’s relationship with best friend Oscar immediately becomes apparent as they roll around the living room floor. The high jinks and wrestling of the boys they once were now carrying unspoken sexual tension. Every time the adult world threatens to show its face, the group retaliate with lines from movies, jokes, banter and characters, their inner child still firmly at play.
It is here where Wysocki’s film is at its most fascinating and engaging. Each of his characters rooted in a self-created world of safety and imagination. One that keeps them secure in a teenage world of bullying, judgement and popularity contests. Their hidden fears, doubts and insecurities sitting just below the surface of every conversation and interaction; their inner adult screaming to be set free from the cocoon of adolescence. Each one, internally debating how much to reveal as the hope and fear of a new beginning, relentlessly taps on their shoulder. With humour, play-acting and games, a diversion from the honest discussions they long to have as they say goodbye.
By delivering this complexity in a tender, light and engaging movie, Dramarama achieves something quite rare; transporting each viewer back to their own teenage experience. The final scenes bound in the emotion of those bittersweet final days of teenage life. And while for me, those heady days before University involved a lot less religion and a lot more alcohol, I still related to each character, finding parts of them in my own teenage self. A truly outstanding young cast only further cementing the emotional relationship between the action onscreen and individual memories. The result, a coming of age movie that proudly echoes the late great John Hughes while at the same time finding its own unique and distinctive voice.