Back in 1994, South Africans went to the polls to vote for their first democratically elected president Nelson Mandela. After many years of apartheid rule, there was renewed hope among the people, especially those who had previously suffered. Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s Necktie Youth takes place in this new post-apartheid era, focusing on a group of privileged youth who benefited from the new paradigm. But far from the enthusiastic cries of “Amandla!” heard throughout the years of struggle, this contemporary piece presents a more dismal outlook, framed by a pair of suicides which seem to reflect a pervading feeling of discontent.
Set in present day South Africa in Johannesburg’s affluent Sandton neighbourhood, Necktie Youth follows the aftermath of a tramautic suicide, as a girl named Emily live streamed the act for the world see. Emily’s death sends shockwaves throughout the community, especially for her friend Jabz (Bonko Cosmo Khoza), who struggles to comes to terms with the loss. Seeking distraction, he joins his pal September (played by Sibs Shongwe-La Mer himself) for a wandering cruise through their suburbs, meeting several members of Emily’s social circle along the way. And as they ruminate on life, politics, race and sex in a haze of drugs and alcohol, their own restless anxieties come to light.
With shades of Rebel Without a Cause in its collective angst and La Haine in its rebel attitude and visual aesthetic, Necktie Youth follows in the tradition of a long list of films about disaffected youth. Using Jabz and September as our entry point into this world, Shongwe-La Mer adopts an plotless “Day in the Life” approach to this kaleidoscopic portrait of their ethnically diverse society, segregated along class lines more than race. We meet your typical Jewish princesses and the range of hipsters and cool kids both black and white, all with lots to say about the world they live in.
Indeed, Shongwe-La Mer’s script is dialogue heavy and philosophical, except lacking any meaningful insight apart from the usual youthful faux-wisdom and professions of disillusionment. And in the few instances it touches on deeper musings on the complex sociocultural dynamic of the new South Africa, it unfortunately belabors the point rather than trusting the audience to connect the dots. As a result, the film is, for lack of a better word, pretentious.
But as much as the film’s entitled, myopic protagonists outstayed their welcome, Shongwe-La Mer’s undeniable filmmaking talent still held my interest. His experience as a visual artist certainly shows in the film’s rich sense of place and stunning shot compositions and framing, captured by cinematographer Chuanne Blofield. As such, I look forward to seeing where his skill set grows from here, hopefully with a sharper focus on the written narrative to supplement his already formidable knack for visual storytelling.