Nominated for a BAFTA award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer, South Africa’s Moffie is a harrowing depiction of military service during the Apartheid regime. The title, a slang Afrikaans term for a gay man, clues us in on what we can expect: intense racism, toxic masculinity, and deep-seeded homophobia. We follow our lead character, Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer in a revelatory, emotional performance), across his two years of service to defend an awful regime, whilst grappling with his own budding sexuality.
Moffie is not an easy watch—the language in particular is graphic and disturbing, with gay and racial slurs prevalent in most scenes. Early on, the hardened military instructors refer to Nicholas and fellow recruits as “bloody puss-filled useless scabs.” When gay men are discovered, there is talk of filling pillows with gun parts and beating the offenders senseless. Even suspicion of homosexual behavior is enough to get you carted off to a mysterious mental ward with questionable tactics. A sequence where we quite literally see the life leave the eyes of a young black man is one of the most haunting and upsetting images. A game of spin the bottle, normally a cute kissing game, turns to a sour display of off-putting masculine energy. The disgusting tactics of those desperate to defend Apartheid are enough to make anyone sick to their stomach.
For me, the one thing lacking is the queer component. It might be reflective of the 1981 version of South Africa our story is set in, but Moffie is in serious need of more gay content. I kept waiting for a big love scene, an inflation of the romance element with adorable fellow recruit Sachs (Matthew Vey), a discussion of sex, what love means—any of these would have sufficed. Instead, it’s all one big tease. I didn’t anticipate a big coming out (they have been done to death, though I definitely still enjoy them), I just wanted more. A cuddle session with passionate and complicated Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) is about as intimate as we get. Moffie barely dips its toes into romance.
In spite of minor flaws via my own personal preference, Moffie is an overall excellent and gorgeously-shot war drama. Sparing flashbacks to young Nick are surprising, and give insight into the character previously unseen. A beautiful use of a one-take tracking shot highlights one such scene, featuring an uncomfortable situation at a public pool. Acting from Kai Luke Brummer is extraordinary, aching with vitality, confusion, and inner struggle. Writer/director Oliver Hermanus weaves an honest, moving film full of power and tenacity, adapted from the autobiographical novel from Andre Carl van der Merwe. Moffie comes to theaters and major streaming services on Friday, April 9th.