When an army sets out to turn a boy into a man (or rather, an individual into an obedient soldier), they are not so much creating something new as they are unmaking what came before. In the case of the South African army in Moffie, this involves teaching them that who they used to be was dirty and wrong, and the only way forward was to be molded into their vision of manhood. It uses the backdrop of basic training amidst the war between Angola and South Africa in 1981 to explore traditional masculinity and the ugly, violent prejudice against LGBTQ people. A film of contrasts, Moffie is both savage and strangely lyrical at times, full of brute force and unexpected fragility.
Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) is a sensitive young man sent away for the army service required of all boys his age in 1980s South Africa. What he finds there is a sadistic Lord of the Flies atmosphere — this training camp is a crucible of sweat, hormones, and toxic masculinity. What else could anyone expect from a group of teenage boys packed into barracks together, handed weapons, and fed on a healthy diet of machismo? The boys who will soon be soldiers are bursting with energy, and they spend the time they’re not being tortured by their superior officers scrapping, drinking, and fantasizing about the girls they’re going to sleep with while on leave.
The guys are all desperate to prove themselves as “real men,” and what’s more, there’s an overtly hostile attitude towards homosexuality (which makes sense, considering that during the apartheid era in South Africa, gay activity was punishable by up to seven years in prison, and the South African Defence Force forced conversion therapy and even sexual reassignment surgery on many of its gay and lesbian soldiers.) But despite the camp’s aggressive heterosexuality, Moffie is rife with homoeroticism. The soldiers may line up at the behest of their commanding officers and yell homophobic slurs to humiliate two of their fellow conscripts who were caught kissing in the toilets, but Moffie is also eager to linger on their lithe, youthful bodies as they wrestle with one another, play volleyball, and even act out a sexually charged scene teasing one of their friends about the shopgirl he’s planning on romancing while on leave.
And in the midst of all this, despite Nicholas’ best efforts to keep his head down, he makes an unexpected connection with a fellow conscript. Their relationship is elegantly understated, full of light touches, lingering glances, and the melancholy ghost of what could be. In an environment that is relentlessly brutal and determined to strip every single boy of anything gentle or vulnerable about them, the bond they have is a brief shining moment of humanity in a sea of barbarism. But it is not without its price.
Brummer is captivating in the lead role of Nicholas. His performance is understated, almost withdrawn, as he wears a mask to hide the shame he has been forced to carry since childhood. This seeming flatness allows the brief moments where his actual personality shines through — a rare smile, perhaps, or a look of concern for one of his fellow recruits — to be all the more powerful. It’s fitting that the bulk of Moffie covers his experiences during basic training, while the actual war sequences are brief and almost inconsequential to the narrative: the former is the much heavier weight to bear.
Moffie isn’t exactly an easy watch. The gleeful brutality forced upon the young recruits, many of them mere teenagers is an unsettling glimpse into South African life’s dark reality during the apartheid era. There is no space for anything outside the white, heterosexual norm. With wanton cruelty, Black South Africans are ruthlessly othered, and their treatment is held up as a warning of what could happen to a young soldier who is either unwilling or unable to conform. Once you see what society is capable of doing to those it deems its inferiors, it becomes of paramount importance as an act of self-preservation to be identified as part of the in-group, the ones that hold all the power. In Moffie, the army is not just training its young men to go off to war: it is burdening them with problematic societal expectations that threaten to crush them.