Funny and poignant by turns

2010-11-29 00:00

FEW South African films can boast of having the kind of buzz which has surrounded Spud: The Movie since the day it was announced that the first of John van de Ruit’s popular novels was to be filmed. And a quick squiz at the movie’s Facebook page and other fansites reveals that his many fans can’t wait to see the finished product.

Set in 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was released and the ANC unbanned, Spud chronicles the journey taken by 14-year-old John “Spud” Milton (played by Troye Sivan) in his first year at a boys-only school in the midlands.

He finds the school daunting and living in a dormitory with seven other boys, some of them decidely weird, extremely difficult. To try and make sense of it all Spud puts his feelings and experiences with the Crazy Eight — Robert “Rambo” Black (Sven Ruygrok), Simon Brown (Byron Langley), Charlie “Mad Dog” Hooper (Joshua Goddard), Sidney “Fatty” Smitherson-Scott (Blessing Xaba), Vern “Rainman” Blackadder (Thomas Burne), Henry “Gecko” Barker (Jamie Royal) and Alan “Boggo” Greenstein (Travis Hornsby) — down on paper in a diary.

Those experiences include night swimming sessions, toilet dunking and shoe polish scrubs to “celebrate” someone’s birthday, dealing with girls and starring in the school play Oliver.

Sivan (who played the young Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is a young actor to watch. His performance is remarkable. At turns vulnerable and funny, he perfectly captures the growing pains of a boy in the throes of puberty.

The Australian teen is one of only two international stars in the South African production. The other is John Cleese, who plays Spud’s eccentric English teacher, The Guv, who encourages him to read books and plays ranging from Waiting for Godot to The Lord of the Rings.

Cleese’s performance is surprisingly restrained and the opposite of what one expects given his exploits with the Monty Python team and in the comedy series Fawlty Towers. But his dramatic ability, showcased in a battle with alcohol and his wife leaving him, is the perfect counter to the moments when he reveals The Guv’s eccentric side.

Another talent to watch is Royal, who plays Spud’s best friend, Gecko. The actor, who has appeared in Winnie The Pooh, Aladdin, Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan at the Elizabeth Sneddon and Playhouse theatres in Durban, and spent two seasons on SABC3’s Creature Club, gives his character real depth.

I was also impressed with Durban comedian and actor Aaron McIlroy’s performance as Spud’s decidely odd father, who, believing communists will be coming to kill them in their beds, barricades the family home with sand bags and razor wire. McIlroy steals every scene he’s in and drew some of the biggest laughs at our press preview.

Other South African actors appearing in the film include Jason Cope as the Crazy Eight’s housemaster, Sparerib; Graham Weir as Viking, the teacher in charge of the school production of Oliver; Jeremy Crutchley as the headteacher, The Glock; Patrick Kenny as Reverend Bishop; Christine le Broq as Spud’s granny, Wombat; Julie Summers as Spud’s mum; and Ben Voss as Spud’s distinctly effeminate rugby coach, Mr Lilley. None of them get enough screentime to really showcase their abilities, but they still do enough to be memorable.

As for the girls — Tanit Phoenix is well cast as femme fatale Eve, who has a steamy affair with Spud’s dormitory mate Rambo; Charlbi Dean makes an excellent Amanda, the older girl Spud falls for while performing in Oliver; and Alex McGregor sacrifices her natural good looks to play man-eating Christine. I was, however, less than impressed with Genna Blair, who plays Mermaid. Her performance was rather one-dimensional, whereas in reality the teenage beauty in the books is a complex one.

I also felt the characters of the Crazy Eight (apart from Spud and Gecko) were underdeveloped. Should a second film be made, the director and producers need to give the young actors playing the Crazy Eight more of a challenge.

Those criticisms aside, I found Spud funny, poignant and downright heartbreaking at times. It’s a homegrown movie with plenty of class and well worth watching.

****

• Spud opens on December 3.

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