'High Fantasy': Film Review | TIFF 2017

HIGH FANTASY Still 2- TIFF Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF
A sometimes grating but earnest attempt to provoke "the conversation" about the world's inequalities.

Jenna Bass' found-footage picture uses supernatural body-swapping to explore race relations in South Africa.

A Freaky Friday exploration of identity politics as they're felt by today's college-age kids, Jenna Bass' High Fantasy sends four ethnically diverse friends off into the desert of South Africa's Northern Cape and then magically transports each one into the body of another. It's shot mostly on these characters' haphazardly held cellphones, spliced together with reality-TV-style post-trip interviews, and any reader to whom this is starting to sound annoying will almost certainly say "yep, thought so" while viewing. That doesn't mean the picture is totally without merit, even for viewers to whom the many kinds of inequality plaguing our world are old news. But any distributor considering putting the film before American art house auds will need to think strategically.

Our four young road-trippers are a black woman, Xoli (Qondiswa James); Lexi (Francesca Varrie Michel), whose white family owns the vast property they're camping on; Tatiana (Liza Scholtz), referred to at one point as "colored" and a sometime activist alongside the more militant Xoli; and Thami (Nala Khumalo), the sole male, who was only brought along because Lexi's family insisted the women had a man to look out for them.

They're having a fine time as they make their way into the wilderness, breezing past little digs about how this is land that "Lexi's family stole, generations ago." But cutaways to the friends' individual interviews, recorded after their return, reveal something uncomfortable and strange is about to happen.

Once they've set up camp, things get antagonistic when self-styled player Thami uses "smash a bitch" as a synonym for sex. He's quickly dressed down, and while he seems resistant to the enlightenment being dished out, a quick cut to his white-wall interview finds Thami chastened, admitting that "all men are trash," him included. What gives?

The four are friendly again by bedtime, all sharing one tent. But they awake in a panic, pawing at the bodies they inhabit as if they had bugs crawling on them. They initially think they're victims of some hallucinogen, but in fact, some never-explained magic has decided to teach them a hard lesson in diversity and coexistence.

The cast, which has already shown itself to be a reasonably charismatic bunch of newcomers, now gets to spend some time doing acting exercises in the bush. Khumalo gets in touch with his feminine side; Michel imagines what it would be like for a black woman to wear the oppressor's skin; James begins to walk like a man. While their (mostly improvised) dialogue offers many observations recognizable to citizens of any diverse nation, it also builds on politics specific to South Africa's recent history — sometimes in ways we understand easily (a post-transformation Thami says he used to believe in the "rainbow nation" but now has been disillusioned), and sometimes not. What everyone will recognize, though, is the self-righteousness and defensiveness of youth and the ease with which offense is taken. Most will also quickly understand why shooting video in your cellphone's portrait mode is a bad idea.

A mercifully brief encounter with a social media-addicted fifth character aside, not a lot happens before these four get returned to their bodies as mysteriously as they were taken away. And weirdly, it is only now that their individual friendships are truly tested. Pointedly, Bass ends the film with the dispirited travelers folding up a camp chair emblazoned with South Africa's many-colored flag, stowing it in the trunk with used beach towels and dirty cooking gear. These characters' parents might have had rosy hopes for racial harmony in South Africa; though they seem to be living that dream on a personal level, these youths aren't so optimistic.

Production companies: Big World Cinema, Fox Fire Films, Proper Films
Cast: Qondiswa James, Nala Khumalo, Francesca Varrie Michel, Liza Scholtz, Loren Loubser
Director: Jenna Bass
Screenwriters: Jenna Bass, Qondiswa James, Nala Khumalo, Francesca Varrie Michel, Liza Scholtz, Loren Loubser
Producers: Jenna Bass, Steven Markovitz, David Horler
Executive producer: Irshaad Ebrahim
Directors of photography: Jenna Bass, Qondiswa James, Nala Khumalo, Francesca Varrie Michel, Liza Scholtz, Loren Loubser
Production designers: Chantell Lungiswa Joe, Jenna Bass
Editor: Kyle Wallace
Composer: Jason Sutherland
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Sales: Bridge Independent

74 minutes