LA Film Festival Review: ‘Catching Feelings’ a Unique But Uneven Dark Romantic Comedy

What’s worse, knowing your spouse is cheating on you or suspecting inappropriate conduct, but having no concrete evidence of wrongdoing? This is the central conflict of “Catching Feelings,” a new darkly funny romantic comedy set in present day South Africa. The film opens with a refreshingly candid old folklore story about the shame of being a cuckhold. Told by professor Max Matsane, the fable sets up an amusing, if meandering, comedy of errors. Beyond that, the film pries into a seemingly happy marriage to stress test the level of trust each spouse has with one another.

A prodigy author in his 20s, Max Matsane (Kagiso Lediga) teaches at a local Johannesburg college as he searches for the next topic to write about. He lives a comfortable life with his beautiful wife, Sam (Pearl Thusi), and encouraging best friend, Joel (Akin Omotoso). However, he feels his life is in a bit of rut. In comes Heiner Miller (Andrew Buckland), a world renowed writer who returns to Johannesburg for a guest teaching series. He’s an older, hedonistic man who takes Max out and turns his life upside down. However, after a viagra induced health scare, Heiner is forced to stay with Max and Sam. The more time Max spends with Heiner, the more he fears he will try and have an affair with Sam. To add to the complications, Joel finds himself entangled in an affair with a married colleague, Tabitha (Kate Liquorish).

There’s a refreshing, chill energy to this South African romantic comedy. This works both to the film’s advantage and detriment. It takes quite a while for the meat of the plot to unfold. This presents us with nearly half an hour to understand the characters and the central relationship of Max and Sam. They’re very specific and interesting characters; however, the film feels as if its meandering in search of a plot. Once Heiner moves in following a viagra induced health scare, the film takes off. Max feels honored to have his friend and idol at home with him. However, he fears Heiner is making a move on Sam at the very moment their relationship is on the rocks. The set up does make the plot more engaging, but it does take very long for the film to really pay off.

Writer/director/star Kagiso Lediga proves himself to be quite an adept talent. His everyman, aloof charm works well as Max, a professor who feels over his head with the partying and affairs buzzing around his life. His deadpan delivery of some of the major punchlines really work. As Sam, Pearl Thusi commands the screen with a variety of different notes. She radiates confidence and charisma whenever she saunters into the frame. Her comic timing is impeccable. Even more impressive, though, is her ability to oscillate from delivering one liners to acting as the dramatic heart of the film. When confronted about her time with Heiner, Sam maturely discusses the issue with her marriage that seems to hold both her and Max back. Hopefully both of these tremendous talents find more work. Likewise, Andrew Buckland manages to steal every scene as the older, philandering literary celebrity, Heiner.

What keeps the film afloat, even as certain sequences and subplots feel quite long in the tooth, is the darkly funny tone. Our lead character is driven primarily by jealousy, but manages to make this descent relatable and funny. There’s quite a bit to recommend here, even if the structural elements make it somewhat hard to jump on board at all points. Overall, its an interesting and unique look at South African culture from a genre that doesn’t often get the praise it deserves. Romantic comedies are often the trickiest export to achieve success as it deals with two very culturally specific elements – romance and comedy. However, “Catching Feelings” manages to work due to its cultural specificity, and winds up being an agreeable and entertaining night at the movies.

“Catching Feelings” premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. For more Los Angeles Film Festival coverage, visit the Festivals section.

Grade: (★★★)

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