“I fucking hate this city, man. Sometimes I feel like Jo-burg is trying to kill me.” So it goes for the millennials of “Necktie Youth” as they wander Johannesburg with hedonistic apathy. 23-year-old Shongwe-La Mer directs a vibrant debut with audacity unique to a young first-timer, allowing his characters to inhabit the cityscapes with no discernible agenda except to capture a societal moment. The result is a one-of-a-kind fever dream of post-Apartheid South Africa.
The opening scene: a high school girl hangs herself and live-streams the event on the internet. “Necktie Youth” then explores the reverberations of this nihilism, which rattles the foundations of a social fabric already fraught with racial tension and murky politics. We’re in the richest section of the country, and in the tradition of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, the teenagers cope with ennui by immersing themselves in drugs, sex, and frantic socializing that only serves to alienate them further. Cutting between stunning black and white vignettes that stitch together into a loose narrative anchored by the suicide, we’re exposed to a city struggling to come to terms with itself. Its affluent young people pontificate on the virtues of altruism, gender, race, and philosophy; with varying degrees of lucidity, they reveal the innards of a troubled country in a troubled time.
The South Africa of “Necktie Youth” is not unlike the South Africa of J.M. Coetzee novels: bleak and wounded, infused with a latent and deep-rooted anger stemming from years of conflict and oppression. “Things been pretty good since they did away with that whole Apartheid shit,” says a black teenager, but Shongwe-La Mer shows that’s not quite the case.
Throughout “Necktie Youth” is unapologetic nostalgia for the South Africa of the mid-nineties under Nelson Mandela. The older generation grapples with the absence of like-minded politicians: in one scene, a middle-aged man tells his wife, “You can’t expect everyone to be Mandela. There’s only one Mandela.” Meanwhile, the idealistic millennials experience a harsh reality check. Over Super-8 home video footage— the only instance of color in the film — we learn that under such circumstances, “people grow up believing they can be whatever they were supposed to be. But then they just go backwards, and everything turns to shit.” Eventually, this hyper-optimism gave way to reality, and the disaffected South African youth are loath to accept it.
Part of this new reality involves tense race relations. Shongwe-La Mer depicts the country’s confusion by oscillating between conflicting perspectives. “It’s not even, like, a white/black thing anymore; we’re all black,” says a teenager. Just after, an overheard conversation reveals a racist white perspective: “Brownies are taking all my jobs.” Innocuous grocery store encounters escalate into violence. A pervasive sense of anger lurks under the surface of Johannesburg.
But this confidence lends itself to an uneven quality. While some sequences play like stunning stand-alone short films, others fall flat, whether by dint of weak performances, awkward pacing, or overly formal dialogue. Shongwe-La Mer does his best work when he relieves himself of the script. These inconsistencies prevent “Necktie Youth” from joining the ranks of “Kids,” a clear inspiration. Nevertheless, like that movie, “Necktie Youth” ends on a brutally grim note, almost serving as a plea to be taken seriously. It’s a fair request, and one that may leave audiences around the world hoping for more intense depictions of South African life.
“Neckie Youth” premiered at Berlinale and screened at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.