Jane Campion’s first feature (it was made for Australian TV in 1986) and one of her best, Two Friends is a quietly observant, deeply felt, and expertly acted study of female friendship and the thin line that separates the winners of the world from the outcasts.
It starts at a wake for a dead teenage girl, where Janet (Kris McQuade) wonders if her daughter Louise (Emma Coles) or Louise’s friend Kelly (Kris Bidenko) could also be at risk. “They’re all at risk, aren’t they?” says Jim, Janet’s estranged or former husband. The rest of the film is an unpreachy object lesson in how right he is about that, showing how wrong things can go when a bright, loving girl doesn’t get the nurturing she needs.
Two Friends scrupulously avoids exposition, so we pick up a lot by context or inference, and some things are left a little unclear. But there’s no doubt about the important things, like the fact that, while Louise’s mum and dad are no longer a couple, they’re still friendly to each other and excellent parents to her.
Kelly isn’t so lucky. She’s saddled with an absent father, a disapproving stepfather, and a mother too cowed to stick up for her. The main thing she has going for her is her best friend, Louise — and she loses her in the end. Or, more precisely, the beginning, since the story of their friendship is told in reverse order.
That backward unspooling of time, which was not in Helen Garner’s excellent script but was added by Campion, makes Kelly’s decline feel as inevitable as a Greek tragedy. The final shot of the two girls celebrating at the height of their closeness and innocence, brimming with potential, would have seemed merely joyful if it had been shown in chronological order. Instead, coming as it does after Kelly has gone off the rails, it’s powerfully poignant.
Campion had only made three shorts before filming Two Friends, but this feels like the work of a savvy old vet. Each scene is a self-contained unit and the connections between them are not always clear at first, but in the end they snap together as surely as a pile of Legos. By almost always filming her characters in pairs or in groups, Campion reinforces the film’s message about the power of our primary relationships. By relying almost exclusively on medium and long shots rather than close-ups, she pulls us into her main characters’ environments and lets us get to know them, yet maintains enough distance that they retain some of their mystery. She does the same with minor characters and extras, like Kelly’s Billy Idol-looking boyfriend, who never speak. These people, most of them teens or younger children, are often unobtrusively observed in the background as they go about their business, providing a social context for the girls’ story.
We see Kelly and Louise in their homes, at school, and out in public, and every environment feels as authentic as their interactions. We also see a lot of Louise with her mother, a relationship that’s entirely free of cliché and always believable, with its intimate blend of unconditional love, annoyance (mostly on Louise’s part), hurt feelings (mostly Janet’s), and domestic routine. Janet’s comfortable, easy friendship with her upstairs neighbor is also nicely calibrated. Not only does that relationship give us a window into Janet’s thoughts (this is essentially Kelly’s story, but it’s filtered through Janet and Louise), but it serves as a reminder us that the volatile, fast-shifting allegiances of adolescent girls are often just training wheels. Once they drop off, the girls will be free to launch the rich and grounded female friendships they’ll rely on as adults.