Older (2020)

In Older, 29-year-old manchild Alex (Guy Pigden) feels lost in a world of maturity. Alex’s dream of one day making a film resulted in the slasher Orderly Misconduct that was spurned by critics and public alike, forcing the now unemployed writer/director to move back in with his parents. Despite remaining close to his best friend Henry (producer Harley Neville) since childhood. Alex has gradually been displaced by Henry’s fiancée Isabelle (Samantha Jukes) and by the arrival of Henry and Isabelle’s newborn son. Phobic about children and commitment, Alex is now engaged in a repeating (montaged) blur of videogames, weed and wanking, with occasional visits to the gym. When, at Henry and Isabelle’s wedding, Alex is reacquainted with old friend Jenny (Liesha Ward Knox) and old flame Stephanie (Astra McLaren), he must choose between these two women, as he is dragged kicking and screaming into an unplanned future.

Where Alex is somewhat delayed in his development, none of these characters is a virgin, and Older contains far more casual sex than the romcom genre typically accommodates. Hopping between the beds of sensation-seeking model Stephanie and more grounded café owner Jenny, Alex must negotiate not only the tangled web of friendship, fucking and forming a family, but also a broader dichotomy of childhood fantasy and adult realism which these two love interests embody between them. Not that any of the film’s binaries plays out too simply in this love triangle. Normally a character like Stephanie might easily be demonised for her two-timing ways, but here Alex and Jenny are also playing the field with more than one love interest. Normally marriage and child-rearing are seen as the ultimate goals of a serious, committed relationship, but even as Alex heads grudgingly down that aisle, his friend Henry’s storyline offers a cautionary counterargument, exposing parenthood as a killer of romance. So here, far from being idealised, sanitised and sugar-coated, romance is complicated and messy – or in a word, adult.

Adding to these complications is a mirror effect in Older that only adds to  the sense that this most fanciful of genres is being used to stage a lived, deeply personal story. Not only is writer/director Alex played by Guy Pigden (and Alex’s childhood friend is played by Pigden’s childhood friend and filmmaking partner Harley Neville), but Pigden is also himself the writer/director of this film, and like Alex, he debuted with a horror feature (I Survived A Zombie Holocaust, 2014) that followed in the footsteps of fellow countryman Peter Jackson. In fact, scenes purporting to be from Alex’s Orderly Misconduct have in fact been lifted wholesale from Pigden’s award-winning short film No Caller ID (2016).

While it would be wrong to suggest that Older is anything more than semi-autobiographical, the impression remains that, as the blocked Alex struggles to write another screenplay until he finally starts drawing on his own life experiences, the new project on which he is working might end up being something like Older itself. Both filmmakers – one real, one fictive – are moving away from the horror of their younger years and beginning to write what they know. This metacinematic element, brought over from Pigden’s first feature, lends everything a veneer of reflexive sophistication, as Alex seems to be awkwardly romancing the independent film industry, warts and all, as much as the different women in his life. 

“What about tomorrow?” asks Alex, when Stephanie invites him to spend another night of reckless overindulgence with her. “Tomorrow never comes,” Stephanie replies to her sceptical lover, even though he insists, “Really it does.” These lines capture the way our characters – all friends from a decade ago – have become, to varying degrees, stuck in their past, and are wondering if and how it is is possible to move on and plan some kind of meaningful future that is more than just a surrender to age. Yet the lines also reflect a film which probably seemed, at least for its makers, to be mired in a permanent present, as production gestated over seven long years of setbacks and re-shoots, followed by a demand from online distributor Amazon to remove several of the sex scenes (the film’s uncut version has been available only in Pigden’s native New Zealand), and a theatrical release disrupted by Covid.

Pigden was thirty when he started shooting – just one year older than the protagonist he plays – but he is now 37. The film’s very title points to the inevitable process that Alex is trying quixotically to thwart. For in Older, school is long since out, immaturity abides and coming of age is belated, even as death approaches (it strikes Alex’s inevitably older, but not exactly old, father sooner than expected). Alex himself may be in his late twenties, but there is plenty here to which thirty-, forty- and even fifty-somethings will also readily relate, in an arrested era where rites of passage never really end, but just collide with mortality. By allowing sex and death to encroach upon the boundaries of its own genre, Older feels a suitably mature take on the romantic comedy.

© Anton Bitel