Review: Battles rage both inward and outward in 'Moffie'

Drama centers on South African soldiers sent to defend apartheid in early 1980s

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The movies have given us no shortage of basic training scenes over the decades, so much so that the horrors of drill sergeants verbally abusing young recruits on screen tends to lose its ability to shock after awhile.  

Not in "Moffie." The story of a young South African soldier forced to repress his homosexuality while enduring a nightmare of abuse at the hands of a psychotic drill instructor is freshly powerful, and its training scenes bring to mind "Full Metal Jacket," the gold standard when it comes to memorably disturbing scenes of young soldiers becoming men by getting yelled at by older men in positions of power above them.  

Kai Luke Brummer, center, in "Moffie."

Kai Luke Brummer plays Nicholas van der Swart, who in 1981 is sent off to do his government-imposed, mandatory military duty. He's trained, as all boys at age 16 were at the time, to defend apartheid, adding the jarring bile of racism into an already corrosive situation.

Hilton Pelser plays Sergeant Brand, who makes one recruit work until he throws up, and then makes him eat his own vomit. It's not easy to stand out among big screen army men, but Pelser manages to do so with his frightening turn. 

Co-writer and director Oliver Hermanus is most effective in staging the basic training sequences, less so in the story of Nicholas, who tends to be a bit of a cypher as a character. But a flashback sequence — set to the Main Ingredient's version of "Summer Breeze" — paints a vivid picture of a key incident in Nicholas' life, where he was villainized and humiliated for his curiosity. In "Moffie," there's no shortage of emotional trauma to go around. 

'Moffie'

GRADE: B

Not rated: language, nudity, sexual situations, violence

Running time: 104 minutes

In theaters

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama