Drastic extremes of poverty and privilege have long been interlocked in Johannesburg, yet while the city’s reputation as a township-encircled crime capital has informed the likes of “Tsotsi” and “District 9,” fewer films have centered on the quieter turmoil seething behind the high walls of its moneyed suburbs. Twenty-three-year-old Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s anguished, abrasive debut feature, “Necktie Youth,” should therefore come as an eye-opener to international auds, even as the millennial concerns it documents — substance abuse, sexual recklessness, insecure economic futures — are far from culturally exclusive. It’s Johannesburg’s still-shifting social and racial politics that lend distinctive fragility to a strain of youthful ennui that has been portrayed everywhere from Beverly Hills to Bridgend. Structurally wayward but vigorously felt and visualized, Shongwe-La Mer’s fest-friendly film — already screened at Berlin and Tribeca — captures both a generation and city in crisis.
The film’s title has a blunt, literal application evident from its grim pre-credits sequence, as Emily (Kelly Bates) — a young white woman living with her parents in Johannesburg’s plush northern suburbs — hangs herself from a tree in the family’s large, well-tended back garden. The necktie, however, is also a standard component of South African school uniforms across all social classes: an early marker of the discipline and conformity that the immature adults under Shongwe-La Mer’s gaze, drifting as they are through their post-matriculation years, have left unguardedly behind.
The pic’s dry-voiced, caustically omniscient narrator observes that Emily’s suicide takes place on June 16, 2013. Shongwe-La Mer leaves it to informed viewers to note that it’s the same date as Youth Day, a national public holiday commemorating lives lost in the Soweto uprising of 1976, when students rioted in response to the injustices of the apartheid education system. The subtext is solemnly pointed: Nearly 40 years later, young South Africans are still dying from dissatisfaction, yet without an equivalently clear, unifying cause.
Shongwe-La Mer’s racially varied human subjects largely belong to what South Africans have come to term the “Born Free” generation: Born after Nelson Mandela’s liberation and into a new democracy, they haven’t directly known the horrors of the country’s political past, yet are still living with its legacy. “Things have been better since they got rid of that apartheid s–t,” the narrator states dispassionately, before sniping that “there was only one Mandela, and that was sheer luck.”
The kids here seem collectively disillusioned with the present-day regime, led by the corruption-plagued African National Congress, though there is material evidence of post-apartheid progress: Principal characters Jabz (Bonko Cosmo Khoza) and his best friend, September (played by the helmer), are members of the country’s black nouveau riche, residing in modern family mansions in the formerly alabaster-white enclave of Sandton. Their mixed collective of friends further points to societal integration, but racial prejudice lingers in more internalized forms: It’s a jolt to hear Jabz and September direct the N-word (the slur itself indicative of a youth colonized by Western culture) at lower-class black individuals.
The pair are peripherally connected to Emily via schoolmates, and her death — live-streamed over the Internet, in the bleakest imaginable outcome of the currently prevalent “selfie” mentality — sends oddly resigned ripples of despair through their social circle. Jabz, already in a self-destructive, drug-accelerated funk, is particularly unhinged by the news. Shongwe-La Mer’s vignette-based narrative sprawls in loose, spidery fashion over the course of a day to eavesdrop on a range of their contemporaries, including cross-dressing drug dealer Matty (Matthew Hall) and well-to-do Jewish girls Tali (Giovanna Winetzki) and Rafi (Ricci-Lee Kalish), who disaffectedly ponder alternative courses of sexual experimentation: the options of sleeping with each other, or with uncircumcised black men, are weighed up with equally idle interest.
It’s not the most sympathetic ensemble of victims, and their cynical musings do pall over the course of 90 minutes, though that may be the point: Shongwe-La Mer is actively challenging his audience to listen, before nihilistically arguing that empathy may be futile anyway. “Sometimes kids are f–ked up, and there’s nothing you can do for them,” the narrator notes with an audible shrug.
In a film light on redemptive possibility, the rigid, rigorous black-and-white compositions by d.p. Chuanne Blofield offer appropriately little give, tarring Johannesburg’s most picturesque suburbs, its grottier transitional districts and its rolling tangle of connecting roads with much the same brush. The pic’s visual language is stark enough that Shongwe-La Mer’s more unruly stylistic affectations — as when the screen is sporadically plastered with bold-face phrases like “white gurl” or “uncircumcised cocks” — seem needlessly juvenile.