Houses I Lived in

Goran Stolevski on how making his new film, Of An Age, reconnected him to his past, growing up as an immigrant teenager in Melbourne.

Two things to get out of the way:

1. Near the end of the ’90s, when I was 12 years old and a fresh arrival to Australia, for one week I was technically homeless.
2. This is not that kind of story.

Because really, it was fine.

Scratch that: “it” was not fine. But I was.

What happened is, upon migrating to Melbourne from the former Yugoslavia, we’d landed in a house where we were not fully welcome. After three months of things surging from awkward to toxic, we had to exit premises a full week before any state housing could become available. We had to stay in what I then thought of as a hostel, and what I now realize was a halfway house.

12-year-old me was unruffled at the time. Stepping with my parents and brother into our temporary new room, I found I had my choice of bunk beds and No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” was blaring from the foyer. All of this felt like a win and I myself was ecstatic. My parents, though? Not so much.

While a perfectly friendly Hell’s Angel was tapping on the window to let us know about “this relaxed drinks thing” coming together down the hall, my dad called a cousin, who called an aunt, who called an old lady with a spare (doily-strewn, biker-free) room. Just a few tracks later, Toni Braxton came on in the foyer (“Unbreak My Heart”). But we were being whisked away to the charitable old lady and I didn’t even get to hear the chorus.

Thom Green and Elias Anton in Of An Age. (Photo by Thuy Vy / © Of An Age Films Pty Ltd, courtesy Focus Features.)

The next time I laid eyes on that place – it was no longer a hostel or a halfway house, it was a kindergarten for expensively raised children. The neighborhood was no longer rough, it was a place with yoga mums and Asian restaurants run by white people. And I was no longer an impressionable 12-year-old fan of extremely gay pop, I was a 36-year-old auteur helming my second multi-million-dollar production.

I was in a bus with two dozen professionals whose job was to hang on my every word. Having done nothing more than type out a story sitting at my laptop in my underpants, I’d been granted a group of people – grown adults with children and mortgages and decades of on-set experience – to make a movie for theaters around the world with a “Focus Features” logo at the head.

My instinct when surrounded by both friends and strangers is always to overshare. Or at the very least pounce on every available opportunity to make the conversation about myself.

But when our bus drifted past the now-restored Victorian terrace of the former hostel, I didn’t feel like mentioning my history with the place. Not because I wanted to hide it, but because it would have taken too long to explain just how satisfying it was in that moment to be in a position of ridiculous power riding past the very site where I was once so completely powerless.

Even that sentence doesn’t quite capture the feeling. There’s a buried, plausibly deniable – and yet utterly undeniable – element of whininess to it. An element of that too-eager sense of victimhood that permeates all of the most successful applications for state arts funding. I’m still figuring out my way around this.

Any time I talk or answer questions about my childhood, it ends up sounding like Angela’s Ashes. Like my early life was somehow shaped by suffocating, tinkly-piano poverty and if I were to make a movie about it, the colors would be drained to borderline sepia, the fathers would be unshaven and violent, and the marketing campaign would be unabashed Oscar bait.

And yet that was not my experience. At all.

I didn’t feel poor. I felt normal. I was normal.

Actor Elias Anton and director Goran Stolevski on the set of Of An Age. (Photo by Thuy Vy / © Of An Age Films Pty Ltd, courtesy Focus Features.)

My days and sense of self didn’t feel stymied by a feeling of chronic lack and limited opportunity. Like my parents – and equally Dickensian-sounding-on-paper cousins and aunts and neighbors – I felt average and ordinary in a sense that was not identity-erasing but reassuring. The sense of self-worth I carried was reflected in the people around and so deep-seated as to be essentially unconscious. So was the resilience I now sorely miss. The kind of strength that came from cruising through hardships and ordeals like they were the norm and not a cataclysm. Like they were something you get through without a fuss and not something permanently debilitating that you narrate to a therapist for years and years and years.

Around that time in my life – and for some time after – I had to go through way worse things than that 75-minute bout of homelessness and I didn’t experience any of it as debilitating trauma.

Whereas now that I’m a well-off filmmaker with a fancy postcode and a profile in Vogue, I find a way to turn every second day into an unspeakable ordeal of epic proportions. Semi-accidentally, I’ll see a person on the internet (or, OK, 24 people on the internet) write something derisive about my work, and instantly I’m Jennifer Coolidge on a boat. My poor husband is stuck in a perpetual loop from hell, having to step away from his own (legitimately humanity-saving) work to play therapist. Because I got the internet equivalent of a paper cut.

Truly, I miss my old resilience. The strength I took for granted when I was coming of age in a time and place that on the face of it looked a Dardenne brothers movie (though without the rain and damp).

Where did it all go wrong? How did I become Jennifer Coolidge on the boat?

Weirdly, on that day zooming past that former halfway house with my bus full of underlings, I had several additional opportunities to meditate on this topic.

For context, I was on the bus due to Of An Age – a film which wasn’t strictly speaking autobiographical, but which did revolve around two boys who very much resembled me, as well as their coming-of-age in the exact same stretch of Melbourne suburbs where I spent my own teenage years.

We were roughly a week away from shooting. To prepare, we were visiting locations to assess safety and logistics.

Elias Anton and Thom Green in Of An Age. (Photo by Thuy Vy / © Of An Age Films Pty Ltd, courtesy Focus Features.)

As if on cue, 15 minutes past the rich kids’ kindergarten, we drove beside the next residence I lived in: a government-subsidized weatherboard I chiefly remember for the way its living room opened directly onto a balcony that didn’t exist. Literally: the glass doors opened onto a five-meter drop and cracked concrete.

The house had since been renovated, and the balcony finally constructed. Its yard and façade – like the entire street – had shed every whiff of “state housing.”

An hour later, the bus hurtled past my next home – a squat unit in a street that, along with new arrivals from southern Europe and the Middle East, used to house African refugees, Indigenous families and elderly people living alone. Interestingly, these (concrete) yards and (brick) facades had barely changed at all. But the residents were now young professionals with noise-cancelling headphones and pencil skirts. The corner bakery was now a café, and served terrible but expensive matcha lattes.

Sheer coincidence had the bus then drift past the next house I lived in – a faded but cozy four-bedroom that for a couple of years genuinely felt like home, before my parents got panicked by the spaceship-sized, perpetually crackling power lines looming over our roof – before moving onto the sleepy street that still houses my mum and dad, where to this day Nothing Ever Happens, and where the neighbors were predictably shell-shocked to find an army of vans unpacking to shoot a feature film just a few days later. (“Seriously? A movie? Here? A movie?”)

In revisiting each of these places, my inner sense of the kid I used to be grew more and more vivid. I remembered where the resilience used to come from.

It came from living with a mindset stuck in a perpetual “future-tense.” A sense of “things may be hard now, but that’s not important, this is something you just get through before real life begins later on, when everything is gonna be OK.” In this mindset, no individual hardship or ordeal could ever get to define me. Only the future, when everything was definitively going to be OK, could ever get to do that.

This mindset – which is not just common but practically mandatory to migrants, and on a basic level necessary for preserving their mental health – actually shaped me not only through my childhood and teens, but through all of my twenties and part of my thirties.

It was a shock to the system far greater than almost everything I’d previously experienced: the realization that I had spent more than three decades essentially absent from my present tense. Absent from my own life.

It turns out there was a kind of numbing that came with that old childhood resilience. The mindset that used to help me persevere through life’s ongoing ordeals had also been making me increasingly numb to the now-far-more-numerous beautiful moments and emotional rewards.

So there was also an upside to shedding that old-school resilience.

Goran Stolevski today. (Photo by Rich Macdonald, reprinted with permission.)

At my current stage in life, I find myself going through stresses and ordeals diametrically opposed in nature and scale to the ones I went through in childhood and adolescence. 12-year-old me would roll his eyes with perfect legitimacy at the vast majority of them.

But the upside of now being Jennifer Coolidge on the boat is that these days I find myself extremely connected to my feelings and to the present moment. When beautiful things happen, it no longer feels like I’m watching them happen from a distance.

And OK, yes, it hurts in a way that is unconscionable and embarrassing when someone says even the tiniest critical thing about something I’ve done.

But it also moves me in an intense way – physically, in my chest, in my gut, in my limbs, I feel it – when I find myself on set these days creating something I know is beautiful. Something that will connect me not only to strangers around the world I would never have reached otherwise, but also to the person I was when I was a stressed, hopeful, distracted kid.

And that feeling? It’s worth it. All of it.

Featured image, showing writer-director Goran Stolevski on the set of his film Of An Age, is by Thuy Vy / © Of An Age Films Pty Ltd, courtesy Focus Features.

Award-winning Macedonian-born and Australian-raised writer-director Goran Stolevski’s new feature, the coming-of-age movie Of An Age, is out now in theaters through Focus Features. Goran came to prominence with short films including Would You Look At Her, winner of the Best International Short at Sundance 2018. He also directed three episodes of the fourth season of International-Emmy-winning series Nowhere Boys. Goran’s feature debut, You Won’t Be Alone, a film steeped in Macedonian folklore with a genre twist, premiered in competition for the Grand Jury prize at 2022 Sundance Film Festival, receiving rave reviews from critics. The film starred Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Carloto Cotta (Diamantino, Tabu), Anamaria Marinca (4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days) and Alice Englert (Beautiful Creatures). (Photo by Rich Macdonald, reprinted with permission.)