Review: Gay Drama 'Moffie' Explores War's Costs

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 9, 2021

Kai Luke Brümmer in 'Moffie'
Kai Luke Brümmer in 'Moffie'  

Director Oliver Hermanus brings André Carl van der Merwe's novel "Moffie" to the screen in a film that's a war drama twice over - though the conflicts it explores are fought on two very different fronts.

It's 1981 and Apartheid-era South Africa is engaged in a military standoff with neighboring Angola in a determined attempt to precent communism from seeping across the border. To this end, all of the country's young men 17 and older are drafted and must serve two years in the military - duty that includes skirmishes along the border.

For Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brümmer), military combat is less frightening that his awareness of a need to suppress his true sexuality in the face of another war - a culture war of deeply-ingrained homophobia. South Africa's brutally racist society is no less hostile toward gays than it is toward people of color, and that's a lesson Nicholas has learned early. (We see just how in a flashback to his boyhood midway through the film.)

The training regimen Nicholas endures, along with his fellow conscripts, at the hands of a borderline sadistic sergeant underscores the danger of being found out. When two young troops are discovered kissing in a bathroom stall, they are paraded out for all to see and publicly humiliated - after, that is, the military instructors allow their peers to beat them. Others are banished to the sinister-sounding Ward 22, a psychiatric facility where gays are indiscriminately mixed with mentally ill men, and kept drugged up.

Will Nicholas survive the perils of battle? For that matter, will be survive the dangers presented by his own countrymen? Those are the central questions the film hooks us with, but there's more: Nicholas makes a couple of close friends, one of whom - Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) he shares a deeply erotic connection with. Temptation and terror interlock as the two share a subtle, but charged, courtship.

There's more than a little influence here from Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film "Full Metal Jacket," and a sharp whiff of the themes of dehumanizing military training rubbing up hard against gentler aspects of human nature that defined Peter Weir's 1981 classic "Gallipoli," but Hermanus doesn't allow his film to drift too far off target, creating a dense psychological portrait that acknowledges the horrors of the Apartheid era while edging carefully, gradually toward hope.

"Moffie" launches in select theaters, digital, and VOD April 9.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.