South Africa, 1981. Caught in a border war with communist Angola, the government demands every white man over the age of 16 take up arms to defend the Apartheid regime. One of those men is young Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer), a quiet young man that doesn’t fit the mould of the macho South African Defence Force. There’s always been something different about him, something he’s been taught to repress, and something that becomes harder to hide when he makes an unexpected connection with a fellow recruit… Can he survive two brutal years of military service without being branded a despised ‘moffie’?
Or at least that is what the film is supposed to be about, with the title (a derogatory term for ‘gay’ in Afrikaans) directly alluding to the story’s homosexual themes. In actuality, Nick’s struggles with his sexuality and his society’s homophobia are reduced to side-plot level significance, despite being the most interesting and unique part of the entire film. The racism of the Apartheid regime is similarly unexplored, with the one scene of white soldiers humiliating a black civilian seemingly included for the sole purpose of ensuring the film is not accused of whitewashing history, rather than looking more deeply into the ways anti-black racism and homophobia are connected in the construction of South African white masculinity.
With racism effectively checked off the to-do list early on and the gay forbidden love story pushed to the sidelines, Moffie fills the rest of its runtime with cookie-cutter ‘young man goes to war’ content that has been done much better many times before. One of the reasons this aspect of the story doesn’t stick is that lead character Nicholas is terribly underdeveloped. Brummer plays ‘sad closeted gay kid’ perfectly fine, but there is little more to the character, meaning our protagonist is essentially a blank canvas for the large part of the movie that is not addressing his sexuality. Unfortunately, the supporting characters are unable to bridge this gap, as they too suffer the same fate, with most ending up as interchangeable ‘young soldier’ types lacking in personality. A particular disappointment comes in the form of Michael Sachs (Matthew Vey), a young soldier who befriends Nicholas at the beginning of their military training. Seemingly set up to be an important character, once Nicholas meets his love interest Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), Sachs just fades into the background. At one point it appears as if the is going to be used to explore the psychological effects of war on soldiers, but that too evaporates into nothing.
The most frustrating thing about Moffie isn’t its poor characterisation or its lack of focus, or even its distracting soundtrack, which is jarringly loud and dramatic at quiet and undramatic moments; it’s the way all of these individual failures coalesce to create a film that squanders all of its potential to explore toxic masculinity and its particular role in upholding the Apartheid regime. Moffie is a film that doesn’t quite know what it has to say, or at least has no idea how to say it. It’s a shame, because with a few focused rewrites, this could been a truly thought-provoking and emotionally affecting film.
Moffie is streaming now on Curzon Home Cinema.