‘Moffie’ Review: A Bleak Coming-of-Age

From the mid-1960s to 1990, South Africa not only imposed apartheid but in a sense exported it. In Angola and nearby regions, white South African armies ostensibly fought communism in a long border war. Starting at age 16, white South African boys went through a period of mandatory military service.

The title of the often grueling movie “Moffie” is a derogatory Afrikaans term for homosexual. As young Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) heads off for training in 1981, his father hands him a rolled-up girlie magazine. “For fuel,” he explains, as Nicholas shrugs, clearly bemused. In a trench much later on, he forges a mild physical connection with another soldier.

This is not a prudent move. This young man’s army is a particularly brutal one. The training sequences bring to mind Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” but with a lot more racism. Not that these young men need to be trained in racism itself. The way a gaggle of them terrorize a lone Black man at a train depot, where they stop on the way to camp, is stomach-churning. And the homophobia displayed by the recruits isn’t casual; it’s vicious.

Hilton Pelser, playing a berserk drill sergeant named Brand, sometimes makes R. Lee Ermey of “Jacket” look like Don Knotts. (For Pelser, this is an almost shocking reversal from his work in both “Kissing Booth” movies.) There is talk of a secret ward where soldiers with psychological issues — mostly discussed in terms of sexuality — are shipped and subjected to further trauma.

Brummer, who bears a passing resemblance to a young Peter O’Toole, is attractive and enigmatic as a young man finding himself in less-than-encouraging circumstances. The movie’s story line, adapted from a 2006 novel of the same name by André Carl van der Merwe, keeps its feet on the ground, rarely allowing the characters to express desire beyond implying it.

Because, as the movie shows, in the world of this army, merely exchanging a glance with another soldier could kick up enough homophobic fear and rage to start a riot. The director Oliver Hermanus also draws from Claire Denis’s “Beau Travail” in depicting attractive young male bodies. He gets too arty with the soundtrack at times — scoring a “Fight Club”-like “spin the bottle” game to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor is a bit much — but in depicting the horrific specifics of this particular man’s awful military experience, Hermanus delivers in abundance.

Moffie
Not rated. In Afrikaans and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In select theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.

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