Set in 1981 South Africa, when apartheid prevailed and the country was in the midst of a long and bloody Border War, the film follows young conscript Nicholas Van Der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) as he struggles with his homosexuality both in the barracks and during manoeuvres. As he begins a chaste relationship with fellow conscript Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), Nicholas must suppress his sexuality within the homophobic environment of the barracks, whilst simultaneously preparing to go to war.
Director Hermanus, who also adapted the script from Andre Carl van der Merwe’s autobiographical novel, effectively establishes the bigoted environment of apartheid-era South Africa through the racism and homophobia expressed by the supporting characters. In particular, the repeated use of the homophobic slur ‘moffie’ by both commanding officers as well as conscripts underlines in a casual manner the high level of discrimination that pressures Nicholas into trying to keep his sexuality a secret. In addition, the institutionalisation of two other gay conscripts as well as Dylan himself further highlights the extent of homophobia in 1980s South Africa and the consequences of Nicholas revealing his sexuality.
The only slight misstep could be the placement of a flashback detailing a changing room incident that establishes Nicholas’s growing awareness of his sexuality. The scene would have been more effective had it appeared earlier in the film; as it stands, it merely confirms what the audience already knows about Nicholas’s need to hide his sexuality. Despite the racism of the era being less evident, Hermanus still makes sure to remind viewers of its presence in two brief sequences (one involving a black train passenger being racially abused and the other involving Nicholas coldly killing an enemy soldier), both of which resonate despite their short length.
The performances all round are excellent, with Brummer in particular adeptly portraying Nicholas’s outward confidence and his inward turmoil regarding his feelings for Dylan as well as his sexuality. In addition, de Villiers impresses in his portrayal of the effects of implied conversion therapy on Dylan, as his initial confidence in initiating his relationship with Nicholas is shown to have dissolved at the film’s end.
Moffie serves as an effectively told coming-of-age story of a young gay man in apartheid-era South Africa that handles its difficult subject matter with tact and without glossing over the prejudices of the time period.