White South African director John Trengove doesn’t take the easy route with his feature debut. It’s rooted in a culture to which he doesn’t belong – the country’s Xhosa tribe – and full of big themes of masculinity and sexuality. But with the help of co-writers Thando Mgqolozana and Malusi Bengu, and a gifted cast, he tells a powerful, sensitive tale of disaffected young men.
The setting is a Xhosa ritual where adolescent boys are taken into the bush, circumcised and lodged in remote camps as a rite of passage into manhood. Factory worker Xolani (Nakhane Touré) is assigned as ‘caregiver’ to rich, stubborn Kwanda (Niza Jay) – but he’s more interested in fellow caregiver Vija (Bongile Mantsai), with whom he has a secret relationship.
The three negotiate this environment in their own ways. Xolani is hidden in his desires; Kwanda challenges his mentor’s comforting lies; while Vija acts out a performative masculinity, deep in the closet and with a pregnant wife. His relationship with Xolani is almost violent, but it’s the quieter man who seems tougher underneath.
It’s a strange mix: the posturing of the younger boys is funny, but behind their literal dick measuring is the threat of violence. If it’s sometimes reminiscent of ‘Moonlight’, this is an angrier condemnation of toxic masculinity and the damage that it causes.