What it's about:
Johannesburg – a city pulsating with contradictions. The lives of Max, a cynical writer-turned-English-professor and his beautiful wife are turned upside down when a celebrated and hedonistic older writer comes into their lives, pushing their relationship to the limit.
What we thought:
When you hear South African comedians entering the film making business, you tend to expect some slapstick gag movie that tries to throw vulgar jokes at you to make you laugh.
Kagiso Lediga goes for a more refined style with clever writing and subject matter that deals intimately with race relations in South Africa and how fragile masculinity can kill love.
Lediga – who wrote, directed and stars as the lead of Catching Feelings – has a smooth approach to such touchy subjects and manages to create a safe space where he can explore these issues without really offending the audience. Both sides are shown to have flaws and strengths, and the story actually follows a tasteful debate around the issues without trying to hide away from the harsh truths, although the plot itself falters frequently.
Max Matsane (Lediga) is a young academic and writer who falls unwillingly into a heavy-drinking friendship with a famous expat writer Heiner (Andrew Buckland) who enjoys a philandering lifestyle. After a trip to the hospital, Heiner ends up staying with Matsane and his wife (Pearl Thusi) and starts to grow jealous in his marriage.
As mentioned, the story has two main themes that intersect with each other at various parts – Matsane’s bitterness towards Heiner’s white privilege as a writer and his fragile masculinity that gets fanned by the attention of a young student as well as his inability to trust his wife’s fidelity.
Although these issues are not unique to South Africa (especially in the US context), Lediga places it heavily in a local context that rings true for our audiences without being offensive. It does come packaged in an academic setting though, which might make it feel cut off from a mainstream audience, but Lediga still managed to touch on that educational divide in a scene between a drunk Matsane and a police officer who chides him for his English-speaking. A lot of dynamics is at play in Catching Feelings, and it knows where to stop itself before it loses focus.
As for its entertainment value, it did lose its steam near the end and the story faltered a few times with the humour. It felt like you were supposed to laugh more than you did, which isn’t to say it’s not a funny movie – just that the jokes sometimes fell a bit flat or came too many at once, which may be a result of Lediga’s comedic background.
I also feel like he could have cast a stronger actress than Thusi, who’s main purpose seems to be to look pretty in underwear, although that may have been how the character’s written. It almost feels like Lediga derides his female characters and makes them far less substantial than the supporting men characters (Buckland and Akin Omotoso were brilliant), despite being very aware of what toxic and fragile masculinity is. A pretty wife that has not shown any indication she’s susceptible to men’s advances; a bored white housewife in an affair with a black man; an angry feminist lesbian whose artistic expression is mocked – doesn’t make for very substantial characters.
Catching Feelings is a strong academic film that raises valid points in South African debates around love, race and classism, but just fails the mark by excluding women from the conversation. It’s well-produced and written despite flaws in its rhythm and would make a good watch for your proudly South African dose of local cinema.