More of Us should be Telling our Own Stories: Thoughts on "Necktie Youth"

Necktie Youth is a film I had been anticipating for quite some time. I was intrigued by the idea of a film for millenials that was actually made by someone in that group, about our experiences. Of course the added incentive was that it was a South African production.

Sibs Shongwe-La Mer's film follows a day in the lives of a group of Johannesburg youths from wealthy backgrounds. We get to see where they go, who they are with, what they do and how they think. It is revealing, and also a little jarring. 

Necktie Youth Official 

The film's dialogue is charming in the way that it feels like it has been lifted right out of the conversation at the bar or at a house party. It mimics daily conversation so closely and comfortably, that it feels unscripted. It also does a great job of elevating the quotidian dramas of millenial life to the level of socio-political commentary.

The characters talk about politics and their disillusionment with it, changing race relations and how they affect interactions within their friend groups, and the burden of parents' expectations all while planning where to go for the next party. Scenes roll and click on (the film uses a technique that relies on silences and title cards to move the narrative along) in an unassuming yet revealing way. Each character's vignette gives insight into the fears, anxieties, and disillusionment of the privileged youngsters of Joburg. 

It would be easy to say the film is self-indulgent: it is a variation on a personal story from Shongwe-La Mer's life, after all. The exhibition of "rich kid problems" is by no means representative of all the issues that the youth of South Africa face. However, I don't believe the film's merit should be based on whether or not it offers a comprehensive picture of the state of our country's youth. No single film can do all that on its own. Instead, the film should be praised for the way it speaks to a certain section of the youth in a language which they understand, at a time when young people everywhere still do not have access to the resources needed to tell their own stories. 

The film is shot almost entirely in black and white, which immediately makes the experience of watching it incongruous with daily life. It is as if the filmmaker sought to alienate viewers from the world that is being portrayed, in order to draw them into it again and make them see it. It is a confrontation with the dark side of being young, free and connected in an affluent part of the country. 

Ironically, connections are exactly what these young people don't have. Each one is decidedly unanchored, and all are searching for a place to belong or find stability. They are all restless, scared and confused, and this affects how they relate to each other. In a particularly chilling moment, a boy is left on the side of the road by his supposed friends after he overdoses on drugs. I assume they were too high, or too afraid of facing the consequences, to afford him the decency of at least leaving him outside the hospital.

The film does make some effort to show that the generation in question is not completely hopeless. The bond between Bogosi (Kamogelo Moloi) and Tanya (Colleen Balchin) is notable for the way it shows the possibility of finding some type of refuge or solace within one close relationship. The two main characters, Jabz (Bonko Cosmo Khoza) and September (Shongwe-La Mer), also have a tender moment in which they distill all the issues throughout the film into one conversation, discussing how they can stay above the fray and survive. 

Necktie Youth is a beautifully-produced cross section of the lives of a very peculiar generation of young people. The script is solid and so is the acting. It will not be to everyone's taste, but that does not make it any less valuable.

It will be interesting to see where Shongwe-La Mer goes next.

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