Intimate and wispy, Two Friends is Jane Campion’s least heated film — and probably her most soulful. A sensitive account of the bloom and dissolution of an adolescent friendship over the course of a year, it offers an instructive angle on the New Zealand-born auteur’s evolution. The movie is technically Campion’s debut feature; Two Friends was made for Australian television, which broadcast the film in 1986. Made at the beginning of what would soon be a brilliant career, it has hints of the audacity and brio that mark Campion’s better-known achievements.
At 79 minutes and with its made-for-TV background, Two Friends invites one to call it a modest triumph. The slender story notwithstanding, Campion has made a movie of unusual richness. Shot in spare long takes, the movie unfolds in wistful reverse à la Pinter’s Betrayal — the friendship’s demise opens the story, its happy peak awaiting us at the end. The script, written by Helen Garner, nails the rhythms of unremarkable day-to-day-ness. In Campion’s hands, the movie comes alive — the quotidian obtains resonance and heft.
When the movie begins, Louise (Emma Coles) and Kelly (Kris Bidenko), the eponymous protagonists, don’t even seem to belong in the same story. Louise is a prim, sullen teenager in a resolutely middle-class household. Dressed in her schoolgirl uniform, she hardly looks the sort who runs with Kelly, all punk and dissolute. Kelly, we learn, has left home — Louise hasn’t seen her in ages — and has been living with “friends” in poverty in a desolate beach town. The movie’s opening chapter ends with an eloquent scene. As Louise reads a letter from the long-departed Kelly, Kelly’s voiceover comes on the soundtrack. Halfway through, Louise drops the missive, but Kelly’s voice remains, reciting the letter. It’s a poignant expression of a friendship past exhaustion.
From there, Two Friends rewinds to the recent months that led to the friendship’s inauspicious demise. By now a familiar device to U.S. and other audiences, thanks to Memento and a Seinfeld episode, the backwards-chronology structure employed by Garner’s script could have easily devolved into a gimmick: a means for cheap epiphanies. Two Friends never takes such a misstep, however. Lived-in and empathetic, the movie earns its poignancy. The structure not only occasions moments of moving ironies. By proceeding from the end, the movie focuses our attention on the tiny shifts and meaningless whims that make up the vicissitudes of a friendship.
Rising (or bowing) to her material, Campion is at her most restrained here. Of her paltry output so far, I have seen all but one: Sweetie, the black comedy that was booed at its 1989 Cannes premiere. Only An Angel at My Table, a moving portrait of author Janet Frame, comes close to matching Two Friends‘ uncluttered humanism. The Piano, her masterpiece, and the two strong features that followed, Portrait of a Lady and Holy Smoke, were all deservedly heralded, but they were more virtuosic than anything else. In its understatement and absence of academicism, Two Friends is almost revelatory.
Drab interiors and an unerring feel for domestic turmoil give Two Friends a sense of concrete, recognizable realness. Not to say the movie is without its Campion-esque flourishes. It’s a delight to see her working in an urban environment. She’s always had an eye for the unusual; in Two Friends, she makes the familiar cityscape look positively alien. Her figures are dwarfed by the emblems of a concrete wasteland: the terraced banks at a public pool; a nondescript apartment building, with a huge banner shouting, “NOW SELLING”; a highway ramp over a lonely intersection.
Even more extravagant is a sequence toward the end. As we hear a voiceover from Kelly again, this time reciting a letter to Louise during the pinnacle of their friendship, sequences depicting her fertile imaginings flit by in a cartoonish, fast-motion flash. Campion pulls out all the stops during this interlude, using different film stocks, coloring within the frame, stop-motion photography, and other fantastical tricks. More than mere showing off, this giddy sequence captures the girls’ spirit of childlike innocence, their obliviousness to life’s harsh ebb and flow. It’s an exhilarating naïvete that, as we’ve seen, will gradually be worn down over time.
Two Friends seems improbably full for its short running time. A resonant portrait of how people grow apart, the movie gets at its simple truths effortlessly and convincingly. The surprise is that the leap between this, a made-for-TV movie, and the Palme D’Or-winning The Piano isn’t as huge as one would expect. Less polished than its illustrious successors, Two Friends is perhaps purer for its rawness and simplicity. Outside of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World and Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, I can’t think of a more unerring and poignant movie about adolescence.