By Leah Greenblatt
April 09, 2021 at 09:00 AM EDT
Credit: IFC Films

There's no shortage of movies about young men and war. But few in recent memory are as brutal, or as beautiful, as Moffie, director Oliver Hermanus' quietly devastating portrayal of a shy teenager named Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) conscripted into the South African army at the height of apartheid.

Nicholas has always known that his sexuality sets him apart, even if it's the last thing he can confess to in a place where difference is punishable by far more than harsh words. His father, when he leaves for his compulsory service at 16, sends him off with a pornographic magazine (Miss Wonder Boobs, the breathless headline reads) and a firm pat on the shoulders; his rowdy fellow recruits are a collective ball of walking hormones, and the training officers almost operatically cruel.

Within this testosterone vortex, a few cracks of light appear: a gentle curly-haired boy named Michael (Matthew Vey) and another, Dylan (Ryan de Villiers), who seems to carry all the ease in his own body that Nicholas lacks. He'll need all the allies he can find; even the mere act of preparing for some performative and half-understood war is hell, more or less.

Toggling between Afrikaans and English, Hermanus (The Endless River) lets his camera linger on the everyday ugliness of Apartheid circa 1981: A dapper Black man stands in pained, silent dignity on a train platform as braying cadets pelt him with garbage; dead-eyed sergeants sling spittle-flecked invective (and much worse) at terrified boys barely old enough to drive.

But the film also finds moments of ordinary peace and exquisite tenderness: a shared cigarette, grazed fingertips, a face turned toward the sun. It would be easy to dismiss Brummer's Nicholas, who has the unsullied Aryan perfection of a Bruce Weber model, as merely pretty if there weren't so clearly a soul behind those impossible cheekbones. Though he rarely speaks without being compelled to, his entire body seems to conduct the conflicting mass of emotions roiling just beneath the surface like a tuning fork — almost obsessively vigilant, because he has to be.

Moffie can be a hard movie to watch, and a heartbreaking one; its bare-knuckled style as unforgiving as the slaps and punches that seem to rain down with clockwork regularity. Still there's a starkness in its telling that feels entirely honest, and necessary: an indubitably human tale plucked from the worst of recent history and transformed into art. Grade: A–