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A Gay White Teen Struggles To Exist In Apartheid South Africa In 'Moffie'


This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic Justin Chang recently caught up with the new movie "Moffie," which tells the story of a white South African teenager hiding his sexuality as a young soldier under apartheid in the early 1980s. You can stream it now on many major platforms. Here's Justin's review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The brutal and mesmerizing new film "Moffie" takes place in South Africa in 1981, when white teenage boys are conscripted to fight in the country's border wars. The story follows a group of these young men as they endure the rigors of basic training and are sent to fight communist forces from neighboring Angola. But the conflict that most concerns the movie, adapted from Andre Carl van der Merwe's autobiographical novel, is the one raging inside its 16-year-old protagonist, Nicholas. He's coming to grips with his homosexuality in an environment that couldn't be more hostile to it.

Nicholas, played by a quietly magnetic newcomer named Kai Luke Brummer, feels like an outsider from the start and not just because of his forbidden desires. He was born in England, as anyone can tell from his accent, and gets hazed by some of his more loutish comrades early on. But that's nothing compared with the verbal and physical abuse dished out by their commanding officers, who make R. Lee Ermey in "Full Metal Jacket" look downright cuddly.

But Nicholas makes connections, too. He befriends another young man, Michael, who is quick to defend him against bullies. Nicholas forges a much more dangerous bond in secret one rainy night, when the young men are forced to dig trenches and sleep in them. Seeing Nicholas shiver miserably in the cold, another soldier, Dylan, gently persuades him to curl up next to him for warmth. What happens next is fairly tame as movies seductions go. Nothing more explicit is suggested than a few tender caresses and piercing glances. But it has a powerful effect on Nicholas.

In this military context, where physical touch is nearly always aggressive or violent, something as sweet as a hand brushing a cheek can feel positively revelatory. If Nicholas and Dylan don't go much further, it's because they know what could happen to them if they're discovered. The title of the movie, "Moffie," is a homophobic slur in Afrikaans. We hear it shouted over and over again in one early scene in which two other men, who were apparently caught having sex, are ritually humiliated in front of their unit. Later in the story, Dylan vanishes without explanation, and Nicholas fears that he's been sent to the notorious Ward 22, where gay men are rumored to be sent for aversion therapy.

He approaches another soldier who's been to Ward 22 and asks if he's heard anything about Dylan.


KAI LUKE BRUMMER: (As Nicholas) Ward 22.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Look; well, as riveting as this is, I think I'm going to...

BRUMMER: (As Nicholas) What was it like?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Why? You thinking about taking a holiday?

BRUMMER: (As Nicholas) I need to know if my friend's there.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I hope for his sake that he's not.

CHANG: "Moffie" was directed and co-written by Oliver Hermanus, a gay, biracial filmmaker who has made several dramas about violence and repression in South African society, though this is his first film set during apartheid. He's said in interviews that while he was initially reluctant to tell a story about this era from the perspective of white men, he saw an opportunity to confront apartheid's culture of hypermasculinity and its devastating impact on gay South Africans. Hermanus doesn't ignore the ugly everyday reality of racial segregation, like when a group of soldiers on their way to basic training hurl abuse at a Black man on a train platform. In these moments, "Moffie" lays bare the horrors of a system in which different forms of prejudice coexist.

Hermanus is also well aware of the latent homoeroticism in this ruthlessly homophobic culture, and he floods "Moffie" with feverishly beautiful imagery of muscular young men at work and at play. At times, these images seem to evoke the lusty desert poetry of Claire Denis' brilliant film "Beau Travail." At another point, the movie pays sly homage to the volleyball scene in "Top Gun," one of the most deliriously suggestive spectacles in American movies. But even amid such playful sensuality, "Moffie" never loses sight of the terror at the heart of Nicholas' struggle. About halfway through the film, Hermanus throws in a shocking flashback to Nicholas' childhood that shows us how shame and repression can take root at an early age.

For all that, "Moffie" isn't entirely despairing. While far from romantic, it suggests that love can persist even in a world driven by hate. And while Nicholas is a fairly taciturn character - his silence is its own survival instinct - Brummer's richly expressive performance shows us a young man quietly coming into a deeper understanding of himself. The movie ends on a note that somehow manages to be seductive, tragic and faintly hopeful all at once. Nicholas, like so many men in his situation, has been scarred by the system of apartheid, but there's some consolation in knowing he will outlive it.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times.

On Monday's show, we speak with investigative reporter Michael Moss. His bestseller "Salt Sugar Fat" explored food companies' aggressive marketing of highly processed, unhealthy foods. His new book examines the addictive properties of processed foods and the food giants' efforts to keep us eating them. It's called "Hooked." I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.