Ahhh, millennials. Generation Y. Daniel Radcliffe, Taylor Swift, and apparently Kanye West. Always on their phones, living off their parents’ wealth, and struggling to understand their place in the world. Based on what we see in Necktie Youth, living in post-apartheid Johannesburg doesn’t seem like it would help with the last part of that equation.
Necktie Youth is an intricate, formally ambitious drama that follows a clique of affluent young people in the Joburg suburbs. They party nonstop, and we quickly gather that it’s a means of coping with severe depression. Introduced with title cards—JABZ, SEPTEMBER, NIKKI, TANYA, MATTY—these folks are all friends, or the closest thing you can get to friends when you’re a rich teenager whose goal every day is to get so fucked up that you forget where you are. I’d call Necktie Youth a “coming-of-age” drama, except there’s no forward momentum in anyone’s lives. Taking a cue from Kids and Less Than Zero, Necktie Youth shows youth as a slow, deliberate snuffing out of future possibilities.
What links these people isn’t friendship, and it’s not necessarily their round-the-clock substance abuse. It’s their connections to Emily, a mutual friend/acquaintance who livestreamed her suicide years before the main events of the film. Director Sibs Shongwe-La Mer (who is 23…which is how old I am…) opens with a cryptic voicemail from Emily playing over black-and-white shots of domestic life. He then moves on to a graphic depiction of Emily’s suicide itself, then to Jabz’s voice over clips of Johannesburg traffic. The film’s story is nonlinear, and Mer is always stylistically emphasizing the underlying emotional despair over narrative continuity.
Even within an ordinary-seeming scene, Mer’s camera might decide to settle on some birds, a fountain, a passerby instead of whoever is speaking. Or maybe he’ll bold a word that someone just said and flash it onscreen for a split-second. Between ordinary scenes, he’ll stage interviews with his characters regarding Emily’s suicide, the purpose of which he keeps vague. Much of this Godard-playbook styling puts us in the protagonists’ own dislocated state of mind. But at the same time, Mer is clearly trying to make a statement as a new directorial voice. Some of the flourishes might be grating were it not for the fact that every frame of Necktie Youth is frameable—you’ll probably want to rewatch it as soon as it ends just to get another taste of the black-and-white cinematography. Getting plastered never looked so good, or so sad.
For all the different settings, accents, and slang words (the character September, played by Mer, says “flex” once about every ten seconds), young folks in America can take to Necktie Youth. Finding yourself in a culture of excess, coming to terms with your country’s history and status quo of racial oppression, burying your feelings under suburban astroturf…these won’t be unfamiliar subjects for many Americans. If you’re a millennial, don’t go into Necktie Youth expecting titillating foreign exoticism or Africa from a distance. Come prepared for a grimy trip into your own closet of skeletons.
Necktie Youth opens tomorrow night, 9.23 @7pm, at Starline Social Club in Oakland.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself.@awkeller510