One would suspect 1980s South Africa isn’t high on any list of time-travel destinations.
Director Oliver Hermanus' Moffie thankfully doesn't drench us in revisionist nostalgia that's all the rage in queer filmmaking these days. At the height of the South African border wars, the apartheid-governed country drafts all men over the age of 16 into the armed forces—including Nick (Kai Luke Brummer), who's thrown into a dehumanizing boot camp that makes middle school PE class look inviting.
Nick's homosexuality is more a backdrop in the story. The boot camp ordeals are violent and hard to watch, so much so that the actual border wars feel moot in comparison. Meanwhile, per the rules of queer cinema, Nick's blossoming relationship with his fellow recruit Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) is there—and it's not. The connection comes suddenly and redirects just as quickly, detailing how the South African society of the time was possibly made up of men who saw emotions as foreign and confusing entities.
The central critique of South Africa holds firm throughout—apartheid was destructive not merely for those it oppressed, but for those on top who surrendered humanity for power. And it's not just the military. Hermanus' film goes to great lengths showcasing how the struggle exists in every aspect of South African life, constructing a society of parents unable to express love and children baffled by the very concept.
Moffie can thus be read both as a classic queer story and coming-of-age tale, but to see it as simply one or the other would be to miss the point. Queer people are less defined by romantic attractions and more by the societies that shape them. Don't go into Moffie hoping for escapist cinema. But if you're in a "destroy the patriarchy by psychoanalyzing stupid men" mood, you're on the right track here.
Like an indie, queer, art house-leaning Full Metal Jacket, the film becomes an anxiety-riddled experience and succeeds in diagnosing the trickle-down effects of a societal foundation which seemingly exists on self-inflated superiority.
+ great cinematography; central thesis is tight
– heavy on montage and other art-house leanings
Directed by Hermanus
With Brummer and de Villiers
VOD, NR, 104 min.