‘Necktie Youth’: Berlin Review

Necktie Youth
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A raw and despondent portrait of wayward Johannesburg Millennials

Director-actor Sibs Shongwe-La Mer premiered his debut feature at the Berlinale Panorama

The kids are far from all right – nor do they want to be – in Necktie Youth, a crude portrayal of dejected South African Millennials that kicks off with a suicide and only goes downhill from there. Directed by 23-year-old Sibs Shongwe-La Mer, who also plays one of the lead roles, this day-in-the-life narrative features lots of raw energy captured in bristling black-and-white cinematography, but is too meandering and uneven to become a breakout hit like Kids or other such sex-and-drugs dramas. Still, the film is revealing enough in its morose depiction of post-apartheid Johannesburg to warrant a look at fests, and on select VOD outlets, following a Berlinale premiere.

An opening sequence shows 20-something rich kid, Emily (Kelly Bates), casually tying a jump rope around a tree in her parents’ backyard, and then hanging herself. Although this event is isolated from the rest of the action, Necktie Youth then focuses on how Emily’s friends react to the suicide, – in a series of faux-documentary interviews – and how they live in a world that drives them to such hopeless extremes.

Cutting between several characters over the course of a single day and night, the story is centered around best buds Jabz (Bonko Khoza) and September (Shongwe-La Mer) – two upper-class black kids from the posh suburb of Sandton who have time on their hands and money to burn. Driving around to the beats of cult rapper Big Baby Gandhi, the duo does plenty of drinking and pill-popping, with Jabz clearly on a self-destructive bender that the more cautious September can hardly deter him from.

Other characters include several Jo’burg drug dealers – one wearing a wedding dress (he’s a dude) – and two Jewish girls (Ricci-Lee Kalish, Giovanna Winetzki) who argue for a while about “uncircumcised cocks” until cuddling up with Jabz later on. Between all the crude and seemingly improvised party scenes, a voiceover comments docu-style images of the city, describing it as a place that’s taken a sorry turn over the last few decades as capitalism ran rampant and individualism destroyed the local spirit.

It’s certainly an eye-opening group portrait, and one that shows a different side of Johannesburg than the ghettos depicted in films like Tsosti or Four Corners, revealing a wealthy mixed-race community whose children lead aimless lives marred in alcohol, Ativan and boredom. But as can often happen, watching kids doing messed up things as they wander about town can become a tedious exercise, and the uneven performances in Necktie Youth don’t always help fuel its loose-limbed narrative.

The film is nonetheless well served by DP Chuanne Blofield’s stark B&W photography, which captures the city in a series of gloomy, high-contrast images recalling the photos in Chris Marker’s La Jetee. Indeed, there’s something almost science-fiction-like about Shongwe-La Mer’s approach to his own generation, as if he had descended from another planet and discovered a country transformed from a land of post-apartheid dreams into a drug-infused dystopia. Yet as the closing scenes of Necktie Youth bluntly reveal, the dystopia is real and it’s happening right now.

Production companies: Urucu Media, Whitman Independent, 100% Halal
Cast: Bonko Khoza, Sibs Shongwe-La Mer, Colleen Balchin, Kamogelo Moloi, Emma Tollman
Director, screenwriter: Sibs Shongwe-La Mer
Producers: Elias Ribeiro, John Trengove
Director of photography: Chuanne Blofield
Production designer: Ronmari Van Tonder
Costume designer: Tasmyn Hobbs
Editor: Matthew Swanepoel
Sales agent: Premium Films

No rating, 86 minutes