Hugely popular in its native South Africa, John van de Ruit’s series of young adult novels successfully translates to the screen in “Spud,” which covers the first of three volumes (a fourth is expected next year). This agreeable lightweight entertainment doesn’t stray far from boarding-school comedy templates — it’s got the requisite pranks, colorful teachers, puppy loves and dramatic crises — despite the country’s momentous events of 1990 in the background. Home-turf B.O. winner has secured theatrical deals in the U.K., Australia and Scandinavia. In territories where it might fall between arthouse and mainstream markets, home-format sales should be a cinch.
Thirteen-year-old John Milton (Troye Sivan) is nervous about leaving home to enter an elite boys’ private school, even if that will afford him a healthy respite from his frankly crazy parents (Aaron Mcilroy, Julie Summers). Quickly sorting out the various staff/student hierarchies, he’s determined to fit in, noting to his relief that there are at least a couple of other newbies even lower on the picked-on-dweeb scale than he is. He gains a toehold of acceptance among his dorm’s rowdy “Crazy 8” gang and its ringleader, Rambo (Sven Ruygrok), though this is imperiled when, under duress, he confesses one of their rule-breaking hijinks to short-fused housemaster Glock (Jeremy Crutchley).
Girl-crazy in a vacuum, the boys focus their imaginations on Glock’s amply flesh-baring spouse, Eve (Tanit Phoenix), the lone attractive female on the premises, and with whom Rambo manages regular liaisons. On visits home, scrawny John, aka Spud (a nickname unhappily acquired after his underdeveloped genitals are glimpsed in the shower), falls hard for beauteous cousin Debbie (Genna Blair), and she somewhat improbably returns the sentiment. That devotion is clouded, however, by his subsequent fixation on Amanda (Charlbi Kriek), a girls’ academy sophisticate imported for rehearsals on a new “Oliver Twist” school musical in which sweet-voiced Spud wins the title role.
Meanwhile, our hero gains an unreliable mentor in English professor Edly, aka the Guv (scene-stealing John Cleese), who plies him with mind-expanding literature from “The Lord of the Rings” to “Waiting for Godot” and “Catch-22,” even as he plies himself with too much liquor. And sickly runt Gecko (Jamie Royal), Spud’s best friend, goes from being comically injury-prone to seriously ill.
Apart from Spud, Gecko and Guv, the characters are broadly defined, leaving some of the book’s favorite bits underdeveloped or omitted outright. The “Crazy 8,” in particular, get short shrift onscreen in helmer Donovan Marsh’s adaptation, while a few darker aspects (like the protag’s parents’ alcoholism) are glossed over, though some may find the rather blunt interest in sexual matters here a bit gamey for family entertainment (despite being an accurate assessment of 13-year-old mindsets). It’s a bit disappointing when the climactic “Twist” production bypasses satire for fairly straightforward “High School Musical”-style uplift.
Nonetheless, it all works as a brisk coming-of-age flashback with some nice comic setpieces and a handsome production gloss. (Pic was primarily shot at Michaelhouse School, van de Ruit’s spectacularly picturesque alma mater.) Apartheid falls as these adolescents inhabit their school-days bubble (albeit one that appears racially integrated), yet it doesn’t impact them or the story all that much. At their age, they’ve more pressing things to think about — namely bullying, pranking and wanking.