'Kanarie': Film Review | Outfest 2018

A spirited ode to escaping the church of the poison mind.

God and country and Culture Club all figure in a South African musical drama that had its stateside premiere in Los Angeles.

For the fashion-adoring small-town boy in Kanarie, there are no role models close at hand. And even his beloved Boy George hasn't officially, unequivocally come out as gay in the mid-'80s, when Christiaan Olwagen's engagingly unordinary coming-of-age movie unfolds. With a fine trio of screen newcomers at its center, led by South African TV comedy star Schalk Bezuidenhout as a military recruit on a fitful road to self-acceptance, Olwagen's third feature is a winning combination of thoughtfulness and exuberance that could translate into international theatrical play beyond its fest run.

Working with co-writer Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, the helmer interweaves well-observed drama with music-video flights of imagination, staying true to the first-person experience of his relatively sheltered protagonist. Bezuidenhout conveys the awkward innocence and thwarted longings of Johan Niemand, who nonetheless has been raising disapproving eyebrows in his placid hometown. As Johan's eyes are opened not just to cosmopolitan — and openly gay — ways of life but also to brutal apartheid-era political realities, the film never turns preachy, wisely maintaining its focus on one young man's awakening.

Called up for military service, Johan is fortunate to be accepted into the 23-member Defense Force Church Choir, aka the Kanaries, where he finds kindred spirits as well as standard-issue bullies and bigots. The divide is rather obviously exemplified by the well-played but sometimes broadly written contrast between the chorus' leader, the gentle Reverend Engelbrecht (Jacques Bessenger), and the militaristic jargon and possible insanity of the Reverend Koch (Gerard Rudolf), who reminds the singing soldiers that "a choir is like a battalion."

Johan is initially embarrassed by the first fellow Kanarie he meets, the portly, demonstrative and effeminate Ludolf (Germandt Geldenhuys), an opera buff with perfect pitch. But he soon warms to Ludolf's sweet-hearted fervor, while bonding over Kraftwerk, Queen and Kate Bush with the easygoing Wolfgang (Hannes Otto). As Wolfgang and Johan's shared love of pop music gradually deepens into a tender, fumbling intimacy, Johan's joy is tangled with self-loathing and confusion. Within cinematographer Chris Vermaak's crisp framing, Olwagen explores the character's conflicted emotions in a number of encounters that strip away the movie's playful, music-infused elements to eloquent effect.

In its judiciously employed theatrical bursts, Kanarie finds Johan in full Boy George regalia, sometimes sharing the singing-and-dancing duties with other pop star impersonators. Olwagen sets boot-camp business against passages of classical music and Lingenfelder's score, suggesting art's ultimate triumph over temporal struggles. The director also punctuates the story with fourth-wall-breaking gazes into the camera, mostly by his main character but also, notably, in sequences that capture individuals and groups in photo-ready poses. Within that collection of smiling white Afrikaners, a few black South Africans appear, along with one or two jolts of violent imagery that point to the world beyond Johan's self-centered concerns. Convincingly working within Johan's limited perspective, the story directly broaches the matter of South Africa's racist policies only once, halfway through its running time, in the impassioned words of an audience member (Jennifer Steyn) after a choir performance. It's a turning point, however subdued.

Johan's personal moral quandary is enunciated too clearly in the final stretches — an unnecessary emphasis when the stakes for him are evident. Understatement proves far more potent, as in a scene in which he attempts to come out to his sister. And in the film's most surprising moments, the would-be caricature of a well-to-do and somewhat sloshed middle-aged woman (an excellent Anna-Mart van der Merwe) instead delivers words of life-changing advice. It might be sheer drunken luck that she sees into Johan's soul, but it's with a wise fusion of compassion and whimsy that this drama does the same.

Production company: Marche Media
Cast: Schalk Bezuidenhout, Hannes Otto, Germandt Geldenhuys, Gerard Rudolf, Jacques Bessenger, David Viviers, Ludwig Binge, Francois Jacobs, De Klerk Oelofse, Anrico Goosen, Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Jennifer Steyn
Director: Christiaan Olwagen
Screenwriters: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, Christiaan Olwagen
Producers: Jaco Smit, Roelof Storm
Executive producers: Jan Du Plessis, Karen Meiring, Kaye Ann Williams, Anneke Villet
Director of photography: Chris Vermaak
Production designer: Rocco Pool
Costume designer: Mariechen Vosloo
Editors: Eva Du Preez
Composer: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder
Venue: Outfest Los Angeles

In Afrikaans
123 minutes