It’s always disappointing when the talent on display far outstrips their final product. Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s Necktie Youth is an unfortunate case of style over substance that pays far too much tribute to (or rips-off) Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s collaborations (depending on how you look at it), stifling some great uses of symbolism by hammering home the points it makes so overtly you’d have to not be not watching the screen to miss their message. Shongwe-La Mer is clearly an impressive new talent so it’s a shame that I wasn’t so enamored with the totality of his debut feature film.
Necktie Youth is a visually stimulating, black-and-white exploration of Johannesburgian bourgeoisie youth culture that follows the lives of a few teenagers in the wake of their friend Emily’s suicide, which she apparently live-streamed over the internet to 10 million viewers (despite how unlikely that sounds). The scene that immediately proceeds her death presents one of the film’s three major issues; it is amazingly heavy-handed (although it is worth noting this was inspired by the actual suicide of Shongwe-La Mer’s girlfriend when he was younger). We see her rich, ‘valley-girl’-esque mother arrive home, yapping away on her mobile phone about inane financial garbage, leaving her younger daughter to her own devices; the uncaring nature of Emily’s mother is almost caricaturish, she doesn’t come across like a real person. Emily’s body is found by two black South-African landscapers who speak intentionally ‘lower-class’ English. As they rush to cut her down, their pleas for help fall on silent ears with Emily’s mother in caught in her own world. We see Emily’s sister watch on in terror next to the video camera that live-streamed the entire incident. It’s clear what Shongwe-La Mer is going for, and its symbolic significance is strong, but none of it feels particularly clever or remotely realistic for a film that tries to situate itself in total realism for the rest of its runtime.1 It’s an extremely easy way to open a movie edgily and pales in comparison to the fantastic opening of Larry Clark’s Ken Park, a film that much of Necktie Youth (this scene included) is derivative of.2
The next issue presented itself in the sequence that immediately followed; a voiceover overlays shots of Johannesburg that paint the socio-economic and historical context for the film – a post-Apartheid, modern South-Africa which still sees tension across racial and class lines. The dialogue here is mostly pretentious and heavy-handed, one of the lines is literally “things have been pretty good since they did away with that apartheid shit” – I get what he’s going for but genius dialogue this ain’t.
The final major issue afflicting this film is that I found few of these characters are interesting, and even less likeable. We are following a bunch of entitled, arrogant teens pulled straight from the latest season of Skins. Seeing as this is Shongwe-La Mer’s Harmony Korine/Larry Clark film, comparison can only be drawn to the casts of Kids and Ken Park, however his imitation is flawed. While their actions were regularly abhorrent and the things the characters said were often totally objectionable, most of the characters in these films were actually likeable (obviously not Telly from Kids, but pretty much everyone else). By the end of Necktie Youth I liked maybe four characters – Jabz, September, Tanya, and Emily for those playing along at home – although I can’t say he made me fully care about them; as a result the film’s conclusion failed to totally land.
If these issues are taken out of the equation, it’s actually a pretty good little watch with some nifty performances from Bonko Cosmo Khoza and Sibs Shongwe-La Mer himself, and some absolutely lush cinematography from Chuanne Blofield that shows a fair amount of restraint in an otherwise pretty over-the-top film. I’d be remiss to not mention the fact that the whole film is far too derivative of the collaborative work of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine without ever giving an overt indication of such. This isn’t a case of Todd Hayne’s fantastic Far From Heaven that literally has a reference to Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows in the title, nor is this a case of reference so minor that it doesn’t stray into duplication from the realm of homage or reference. I’d be okay with it if there was at least a moment in which Shongwe-La Mer called out Larry Clark as a reference – there’s ample opportunity in a closing voice-over that says something about how this could happen in Johannesburg or it could happen in Washington, a location that could easily be changed to Visalia, California, the setting of Ken Park, or New York City, the setting of Kids – but no attempt is made upon the part of our director/screenwriter/star to reference the overtly derivative nature of this film. In saying this, his film seems like much more of a tribute than a direct rip-off and it feels as though he wanted to use these films as a frame of reference to apply the issues of low socio-economic class Americans to those of upper-class Johannesburgians more than anything else (whether this is an ample comparison is obviously up for debate).
That’s not to say that the film wasn’t enjoyable. In fact, in spite of it’s numerous issues, I began to enjoy myself about 20 or 30 minutes into its brisk runtime. For me,some aspects of the film are unforgivably sloppy or possibly even unethical but on a whole its actually a decent effort. While Necktie Youth is an underwhelming on a whole, a little too derivative and somehow simultaneously heavy-handed and hollow, Shongwe-La Mer does show moments of absolute brilliance, especially in the film’s cinematography. With a little fine-tuning, and a bit more finesse he will make some amazing films in the future.