Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: In the early 1980s, all South African males age 16-60 were conscripted into the South African Defence Force to defend their country's apartheid regime against Soviet-backed Angola. One new recruit, Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer), has to contend not only with the brutal training, but hiding the fact he's gay (derogatorily referred to as a "moffie" in Afrikaans) from both military command and his brothers-in-arms.
"Critical" Analysis: There's an adage that says the best time in history to live as a woman (or person of color, or LGBTQ) is right now. The next best time is tomorrow. Those fond of pining for "the good old days" tend not to fall into those categories, for reasons that should be obvious.
Having said that, even the military is no bed or roses for gays and lesbians, even in the present-day. Now imagine serving for a regime that not only codifies anti-homosexuality in its military statutes, but in the law of the land as well.
Nicholas has learned how to hide his true self. The SADF's basic training is predictably harrowing; Full Metal Jacket by way of overt institutional racism (demonstrated in various scenes of both recruits and veterans victimizing Blacks). In fact, it's Moffie's devotion to that film's aesthetic (as well as some possibly inadvertent yet still hilarious callouts to others) that unfortunately threaten to distract us from its power.
It's unlikely you've heard of director Oliver Hermanus for anything before Moffie (maybe The Endless River, nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice in 2015), which he also co-wrote, based on Andre Carl van der Merwe's autobiographical novel. But Hermanus has a sure hand, juxtaposing the barbarity of military life with the fleeting moments of tenderness afforded Nicholas.
These mostly come by way of his friendship with Michael Sachs (Matthew Vey), who he meets on the trip to basic training, and an ultimately unrequited romance with fellow recruit Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), who — along with two other soldiers from Nicholas's squad — is sent to a military asylum for their "deviant" beliefs.
Brummer, looking like a buffer, less petulant Eddie Redmayne, is more of a cypher than he is at effectively capturing the futility of Nicholas's situation, though you get some sense of his struggle to remain "invisible" (on the advice of another soldier), especially at the end.
Hermanus is at his most impressive during an (apparent) single-take flashback sequence involving a young Nicholas that goes from innocuous curiosity to genuine peril in seconds flat. The rest of the film doesn't deliver on that promise, largely thanks to the aforementioned Kubrickian...isms.
Even leaving out the basic training scenes, which are horrific across the board (and Hilton Pelser's Sergeant Brand is more of a psychopath than Gunny Hartman could ever imagine), Hermanus includes a recruit's suicide and a shot of Nicholas standing over a dying Angolan insurgent that might as well have been copy/pasted from the climactic sniper sequence in FMJ.
As if to balance that out, there's also a volleyball scene. Danger Zone indeed.
Shot mostly in Afrikaans (a language almost as lovely as German), Moffie shows how some things in the military never change, whether it's intolerance or naked propaganda (insurgents should stop leaving pesky land mines/IEDs and stand up and fight, for example). And while the human spirit is resilient to a fault, it isn't indestructible.
Moffie is in select theaters and streaming on VOD today.
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