About halfway through Oliver Hermanus’ emotionally brutal Moffie, a group of soldiers play spin the bottle. Normally, the childhood game deals with coming-of-age anticipation–palms sweating and hearts aflutter–but these matches end in fistfights rather than kissing. It’s just one of the scenes where Hermanus confronts his audience with machismo and toxic masculinity. For one closeted young man, there isn’t just danger in the field of battle.
Set in Apartheid era South Africa in 1981, Moffie follows one young man, Nicholas van der Swart, as he enters basic training and finds himself surrounded by aggressive, angry young men. Nicholas, gently portrayed by Kai Luke Brummer, is mostly quiet and observant and very much unlike his fellow cohorts. When their transportation to training makes a stop, he witnesses some other soldiers hurling racial slurs at a Black man who refuses to stand up when they demand it. It’s just one of the first violent incidents that Nicholas will see.
Nicholas is weighing his own feelings about his own sexuality. His mother has no idea, and, before he left, his father gave him a girly magazine to “show them what you’re made of.” When two other soldiers are caught messing around in the shower, they are beaten by men on their own side, and a commanding officer forces everyone to call them derogatory names as part of their training. We can see Nicholas crawling inside himself out of fear and Brummer’s stoicism hardens into something very tragic. How many young men have had their sexuality beaten out of them–both physically and emotionally–like a drum from words thrown at them?
In some scenes, you almost forget what these young men are fighting for. They endure so much abuse but it’s all done in the name of toughening them up or as a rite of passage. If anyone stepped into this training session and they weren’t a straight, white man, it would be a horror show. They say it’s all for the sake of honor and defending the country, but it’s violent and harsh.
Hermanus truly explores different aspects with his settings. In additional to the landscape of training, he provides some insight about Nicholas’ fears in a flashback about a stranger berating him as a kid in public. The last third of Moffie has a sequence in battle at night with some exquisite cinematography that shadows some of the soldiers’ faces. The original score throbs with danger.
Moffie, which is a South African slur for an effeminate man or a man who is weak, only focuses on one young man hiding a secret, but there are swaths of other young adults surely hiding something about themselves. This behavior and environment of supposed manliness is dangerous and shocking. The age-old, disgusting phrase ‘boys will be boys’ has been tossed around more often than usual in the last ten years, but it is a flimsy excuse for men who think they can get away with anything.