Review: ‘Moffie,’ starring Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers, Matthew Vey, Stefan Vermaak and Hilton Pelser

April 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kai Luke Brummer and Ryan de Villiers in “Moffie” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Moffie”

Directed by Oliver Hermanus

English, Dutch and Afrikaans with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1981 to 1983 in South Africa, the dramatic film “Moffie” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) who are mostly in or connected to South African’s military.

Culture Clash: A closeted gay teenager in the South African army hides is sexuality from everyone except for a fellow soldier who forms an emotional connection with him.

Culture Audience: “Moffie” will appeal primarily to people interested in raw and sometimes hard-to-watch stories about apartheid-era South African culture and stories about closeted LGBTQ people.

Kai Luke Brummer in “Moffie” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Moffie” unflinchingly but sometimes unevenly tells a story that’s rarely been told in a movie: What it was like to be a closeted gay white male teenage soldier in 1980s South Africa, where homosexuality was illegal at the time. The movie is an often-brutal portrayal of hatred, fear and violent bullying.

Therefore, people should know before watching “Moffie” that it’s a very triggering film for anyone who’s likely to have negative mental-health reactions to seeing these issues portrayed on screen. For people who can handle the harsh realities presented in the movie, “Moffie” might still be a hard film to watch, but its intention is to not gloss over the damage caused by homophobia and other bigotry.

Directed by South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus, “Moffie” is based on André-Carl van der Merwe’s 2006 novel of the same title. The novel was inspired by van der Merwe’s own experiences as a closeted gay member of the South African military in the 1980s. “Moffie” director Hermanus and Jack Sidey co-wrote the adapted screenplay.

The word “moffie” is a derogatory Afrikaans term for a gay male. In the production notes for “Moffie,” Hermanus (who is openly gay) explains why he chose to keep this title for the movie: “Any gay man living in South Africa knows this word and has a relationship with it. It’s a weapon that has been used against us for so long. I felt a strong pull to exploring my own history with this word which ended up being a scene in the film and I think it was the want to denuclearize, reform this word that was at the heart of my decision to make this film.”

The story’s main character is Nicholas van der Swart (played by Kai Luke Brummer), a sensitive and kind 18-year-old who comes from a loving home in an unnamed South African city. Nicholas lives with his parents Peet van der Swart (played by Remano De Beer) and Suzie van der Swart (played by Barbara-Marié Immelman), who are very proud of their only child. However, Nicholas has a big secret that he hasn’t told anyone out of fear: He’s gay.

The story takes place from 1981 to 1983, during South Africa’s apartheid years, when the white citizens who were in the minority were in government power and made it legal to discriminate against anyone in South Africa was wasn’t white. Racial segregation was legal in South Africa in this apartheid era. During this time in the early 1980s, the South African military began operations to fight against Angola at the Angolan/South African border.

Angola was backed by the Soviet Union, and South Africa’s military attacks were ostensibly to fight against Communism. However, South Africa’s military operations in these Angolan conflicts were also used as excuses to slaughter innocent black people. In South Africa during this time, any white male over the age of 16 was required to serve in the military for at least two years.

The beginning of the film shows Nicholas and his family having a send-off party for him. During the party, Nicholas’ father Peet takes him aside and gives Nicholas a nudie magazine. Peet smirks as he tells his son that the magazine will help Nicholas get through the long stretches of time in the military when Nicholas won’t be in contact with any women. Nicholas takes the magazine and pretends to be pleased with this gift, even though he knows deep down he’s not going to use it in the way his father intended.

“Moffie” doesn’t get into specifics about how Nicholas personally felt about apartheid. He tends to be quiet and doesn’t express any political views during the story. When he sees racism firsthand, Nicholas does nothing to stop it.

For example, there’s a scene where some fellow army recruits harass and humiliate an elderly black man (played by Israel Ngqawuza), who’s waiting at a train station. The bigots use the “n” word and throw food that splatters all over the man. Nicholas watches this hate crime as if it’s something he’s used to seeing because this blatant racism is allowed in apartheid South Africa.

The expression on Nicholas’ face seems to suggest that he has empathy for the black man who’s the target of this hate, but Nicholas is outnumbered by his racist peers, and he feels powerless to say and do anything. It won’t be long before Nicholas will experience his own bullying, for a different reason. This movie’s scenes are often a barrage of toxic masculinity. But the point is to show that even with “white male privilege” in South Africa, some white men faced their own types of persecution if they were perceived to be effeminate or not heterosexual in any way.

The new recruits take a train together to boot camp. Nicholas shares a cabin with a young man who’s around the same age. His name is Michael Sachs (played by Matthew Vey), and he’s a lot more confident and outgoing than Nicholas. Nicholas and Michael become fast friends. Their friendship endures even through some of the most brutal hazing that these new soldiers have to endure as part of their military training.

On their first day of boot camp, the recruits are forced to strip to their underwear and are bullied into submission by the commanding officers. The commanding officers don’t hesitate to punch the recruits, shove their faces in dirt, and call them all sorts of vicious and derogatory names if the recruits don’t pass some real or imagined test of their compliance. A commanding officer named Sergeant Brand (played by Hilton Pelser) is the most sadistic and hate-filled of all the military officers at this boot camp.

In case it wasn’t clear how Sergeant Brand feels about certain subjects, he shouts to the new recruits that this army won’t tolerate Communism, laziness, homosexuality and anyone who shows sympathy to black people. (He uses derogatory terms for black people and gay people in this tirade.) Sergeant Brand also expresses his share of misogyny, as he frequently uses the “c” word (a gender slur against women that rhymes with stunt) to insult any recruit who does something to anger him.

The physical and verbal abuse doesn’t just come from the commanding officers. There’s plenty of it among the recruits. Anyone who is perceived as not fitting into macho heterosexual white Christian male standards becomes a target for the abuse. Nicholas, who comes from a sheltered environment, experiences culture shock and has to adapt quickly.

A recruit named Snyman (played by Wynand Ferreira) is the biggest bully among these new soldiers. When Snyman sees that Nicholas has brought a photo of his father with him, Snyman takes it as a sign that Nicholas has gay or “sissy” tendencies. Snyman steals the photo from Nicholas and taunts him.

Michael sticks up for Nicholas and calls Snyman a name. A brawl breaks out, but it’s eventually smoothed over when Nicholas offers his nudie magazine to Snyman in exchange for Snyman returning the photo of Nicholas’ father to Nicholas. However, Nicholas is now fully aware that he can’t show any signs of being gay to these homophobic bullies or else he could be in physical danger.

Nicholas also sees what happens when anyone in the South African military is suspected of being gay. One day, two recruits named Baxter (played by Cody Mountain) and Hilton (played by Luke Tyler) are forced to stand in front of everyone else, while the commanding officer hurls homophobic insults at them. Nicholas overhears from the other recruits that Baxter and Hilton were rumored to be caught kissing each other in a bathroom stall.

It’s also the first time that Nicholas hears about Ward 22, which is a psychiatric ward that military people are sent to if they are suspected of being gay. Based on how Ward 22 is talked about in this group of people, it’s worse than a prison. Baxter and Hilton soon disappear from the recruits’ living quarters. Everyone assumes that Baxter and Hilton have been sent to Ward 22 as punishment.

One very cold evening, when the recruits are training how to make and sleep in foxholes, Nicholas finds himself alone with a fellow recruit named Dylan Stassen (played by Ryan de Villiers), who is handsome and confident among his peers. Dylan notices that Nicholas is shivering, so he tells Nicholas that he can warm up next to him. At first Nicholas is hesitant, but when he sees that no one else is looking, he takes Dylan up on his offer.

Dylan and Nicholas lie next to each other in the foxhole in a platonic manner. But when they make steady eye contact, they know they’re attracted to each other. And so, when Dylan makes the first move and starts to caress Nicholas’ arm, Nicholas doesn’t pull away or tell him to stop. It’s too risky for Dylan and Nicholas to spend the night sleeping next to each other, but now they both know that there’s a sexual attraction between them.

Over time, Dylan and Nicholas keep their budding romance a secret. They go to such extremes that Dylan and Nicholas end up brawling with each other in a macho display to fit in with their peers. This knock-down, drag-out fight happens at the barracks when the recruits play a “spin the bottle” game that’s based on brawling, not kissing. If the bottle points to a person, that person has to fight someone.

When it’s unlucky Dylan’s turn to fight and pick a sparring partner, he’s reluctant and makes a half-hearted attempt with one of the recruits. Dylan is then taunted by some of the bullies in the group. But then, Nicholas then steps and challenges Dylan to the fight. Why would Nicholas do that?

The psychology behind this thinking is because the recruits are aware that Dylan and Nicholas have become closer, Nicholas is paranoid that people will suspect him and Dylan of being gay. And when Nicholas sees that Dylan is reluctant to fight someone and is possibly going to be labeled a “sissy” or “gay,” Nicholas over-compensates by being overly aggressive in his fight with Dylan. Dylan fights back just as hard, in self-defense and also because he’s angry over this attack from a friend.

Nicholas and Dylan’s fight is a turning point in their relationship, because it sends a clear message to Dylan that Nicholas is going to do whatever it takes to stay closeted in this environment. In private, Nicholas attempts to smooth things over with Dylan by asking him not to take the fight too personally. Dylan seems to understand, but something happens that will test Nicholas and Dylan’s relationship even more.

“Moffie” shows some combat scenes at the Angolan border, but most of the turmoil in the movie is about Nicholas coming to terms with his sexuality and the self-loathing that he has because he knows he’s living a lie. Nicholas is a stoic person who doesn’t open up to people easily. He’s the type of person who would rather blend in rather than stand out.

Not all of “Moffie” is depressing gloom and doom. The most light-hearted moments come when Nicholas spends time with Michael, who seems to have no idea that Nicholas is gay. (Nicholas hides his sexuality very well.) They like to joke around and sometimes trade mild insults with each other.

For example, one day, while they have some free time to hang out by themselves, Nicholas and Michael see some soldiers nearby walking robot-like in military line. Michael tells Nicholas, “Do me a favor. If I look that, shoot me in the head.” Nicholas replies, “Why should I? You know how to shoot!” Michael exclaims in response: “Bastard!”

Moffie also becomes friends with another recruit named Oscar Fourie (played by Stefan Vermaak), who’s even more outgoing and gregarious than Michael. But just like Michael, Oscar doesn’t suspect that Nicholas is gay. There’s a scene where all three pals hang out at a bar, where Michael and Oscar think that they all have the goal of finding women to flirt with or more. This scene is also a pivotal moment in the movie because of something that Moffie finds out in a conversation with Oscar.

“Moffie” doesn’t tell Nicholas’ story in a consistent manner. There are some parts of the movie that are a monotonous drag, while other parts of the movie have almost sensory overload with all the violent abuse. If the movie were a painting, it would be more like a mural instead of a portrait, with some parts more scattershot than others.

The one part of the movie that significantly shows Nicholas’ life before he enlisted in the military is a flashback scene where Nicholas, who’s about 15 or 16 years old, is spending some time with his parents at a public recreation area with a swimming pool. When Nicholas goes into the shower area, he stares at another naked teenager in a shower.

A man (played by Jaco van Niekerk) walks into the shower area, sees Nicholas staring at the naked teen, and immediately gets angry at Nicholas. He accuses Nicholas of being a sexual predator and drags him to the manager’s office to report Nicholas. The man lies and says that he also saw Nicholas masturbating while staring at another boy. Nicholas denies this accusation, while the man rants about how Nicholas should be thrown out and banned because his own sons and other boys are in the area. The angry father also says that he and his family regularly go to this recreational area and he threatens to boycott it if something isn’t done about Nicholas.

Nicholas’ parents find out what’s happening, which leads to the angry man getting into an argument with them. Nicholas’ father denies that Nicholas is gay or did anything as perverted as being a masturbating voyeur in a public shower area. The confrontation is bad enough that the man and Nicholas’ father get into a fist fight before his parents quickly decide to leave with Nicholas.

As humiliating as this experience must have been for Nicholas, the movie could have used more insight into other formative experiences that he had when coming to terms with his sexuality as a teenager. For example, what happened when Nicholas and his parents got home after the confrontation with the homophobic man? Most viewers could assume that they never talked about this incident again, but what if they did? What was said? And how did what his parent say to him in private affect how he viewed himself as a person?

There are huge, missing gaps in Nicholas’ personal history that needed more explanation. Did he ever date any girls out of peer pressure and to hide his sexuality? What are his interests outside of the military? Throughout much of the movie, Nicholas is really a blank slate of repressed emotions and a vague background.

Based on the way he interacts with Dylan, Nicholas has never been in love with a man before and is possibly a gay virgin. At one point in the story, Dylan gives Nicholas a light romantic kiss on the lips. It’s very likely that Dylan was the first man Nicholas ever kissed in a romantic way, but viewers will never find out.

On the plus side, Brummer gives a very good performance of a man who is going through silent agony and has to pretend to the world that he’s happy and well-adjusted. Because Nicholas isn’t much of a talker, his facial expressions and body language are the best ways that viewers who pay attention can figure out how he must be feeling inside. And because Brummer skillfully shows of these non-verbal cues, “Moffie” is often a heart-wrenching film to watch.

Writer/director Hermanus made very good casting choices in the movie, because all the cast members (who are a mix of professional actors and non-professional actors) are believable in their roles. Some people might gripe that “Moffie” doesn’t address issues of racism enough. However, the movie is told from the perspective a young white man in apartheid South Africa. When people aren’t the targets of racism, they tend not to think about it very much. In that regard, it’s absolutely realistic that Nicholas, considering who he is, would be more concerned about homophobia than racism.

If there is any throughline to this narrative, it’s that the people who tend to be homophobic also tend to be bigoted in other ways too, including when it comes to race and/or religion. Bullying and bigoted attacks can cause damage that’s not always visible. And that’s why even though some viewers of “Moffie” might not like how the movie ends, the ending is realistic of how people who’ve been wounded by bigotry have different ways of trying to heal.

IFC Films released “Moffie” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 9, 2021.