Review: Queer drama 'Moffie' beautifully recontextualizes war drama
Courtesy of IFC Films
A one-of-a-kind queer war drama, Oliver Hermanus’ touching “Moffie” finds compassion in the toughest circumstances. Set in Capetown, 1981, and taking a notch from the “Full Metal Jacket” playbook with tough sergeants, demoralizing field exercises, and sad goodbyes, Hermanus takes a different approach to the subject matter. He recontextualizes the modern war pic by focusing on one’s internal struggle with being gay in the South African army, an urge or feeling that would be met with swift resistance and brutal consequences. Considering the Apartheid-era backdrop, “Moffie” has plenty of underlying brutality, and its main subject isn’t the sole proprietor of tragedy, though his takes the most precedent.
Moffie is a slang term for queer in local South African communities, and judging by the display of homophobic bigotry, it’s hard to imagine a less inclusive environment. Based on an autobiographical novel by writer Andre Carl van der Swart, “Moffie'' peels back the layers of the dynamic between a squad of boys – between the ages of 16 and 20 – getting drafted and taking on “black savages” at the behest of their government. We follow Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer), a decent looking fellow who in another life would be a model, faking it through boot camp under the stern, watchful, eye of his sadistic drill lieutenant.
We watch as Nicholas, and his fellow compatriots, get squished into close living quarters and undergo strict regimes. The screenplay by Hermanus and Jack Sidey explore these early moments with a daft sense of awareness, and these rowdy young adults are quickly beaten into submission. They aren’t privy to the confines of normal life. This is hell, and they’re here to stay. In fact, they’re trained and worked to the brink that one recruit takes a shotgun blow to the head while his peers are playing volleyball.
Contending with the trauma and relentless training, Nicholas finds solace with fellow bunkmate Dylan (Ryan de Villiers) who locks eyes with him occasionally and dreams about visiting the ocean. Of course, their secret affair grows more complicated, but the sweet, intimate tenderness that emotes from their brief time together is something rarely seen in a hardened war picture. The best sequence in the film isn’t that of combat, but a flashback to Nicholas’s childhood where he’s accused of “spying” on older men in a pool locker room. It’s a brutal, hard-to-stomach moment that gives origin to Nicholas’ troubled upbringing and provides context to an earlier scene in which his father gifts a Playboy magazine before getting shipped off to bootcamp.
“Moffie” does finish with an uneven, climatic battle that’s shot beautifully by cinematographer Jamie D Ramsay, but that doesn’t hinder the overall messaging. The dueling perspectives of war and sympathy offers a nurturing anecdote about finding harmony during times of hardship and Brummer delivers an exceptional star-is-born performance. Capturing the balance between a young man searching for truth, and a soldier who’s entire outlook is shattered forever.
MOFFIE opens in theaters and on-demand Friday, April 9th.