South African film “Catching Feelings” made its world premiere with a sold-out screening at the LA Film Festival. It’s a dark romantic comedy that follows an urbane young academic and his beautiful wife as their lives get turned upside down when a celebrated and hedonistic older writer moves into their Johannesburg home with them.
The film stars comedian/writer/director Kagiso Lediga (“Bunny Chow Know Thyself”), Pearl Thusi (“Quantico”), Andrew Buckland (“Shot Down”), Precious Makgaretsa (Biltzpatrollie”), and Akin Omotoso (“Vaya”).
In “Catching Feelings,” Max Matshane (Lediga) is a 34-year-old author who wrote a South African bestseller in his 20’s, though his star is now on the wane. He teaches creative writing at the local university and lives in a Johannesburg suburb with his hot reporter wife, Sam (Thusi).
When a successful and flamboyant writer, Heiner Miller, comes to do a residency at the university, Max gets caught up in the drama of Heiner’s hedonism. When Heiner gets involved in a string of sexual escapades, spurred by drug- and alcohol-induced late night parties, he has a mild heart attack that forces Max to bring him home to recuperate. But tensions rise as Heiner continues his ways under Max and Sam’s roof. Will Heiner keep his hands off Max’s wife? And will Max and Sam’s marriage survive Heiner?
The film starts out slowly, with the couple and their friends sipping drinks at a bar. The pace never quite picks up, though we’re kept engaged by the variety of locations and characters—like Sam’s militant, drum-playing, poet friend Lazola, played by model-turned-comedy-actress Precious Makgaretsa.
In the end, “Catching Feelings” is a story about how a black former writer, disenchanted by his life, lets his world be turned upside down by an older, more famous white writer.
It feels like a story we’ve seen before—think other drunken writer films like “Wonder Boys,” whose plot meanders just as much—though its South African cast and backdrop changes the particularities sufficiently enough to put a new spin on an old story.
Max and Sam go out to parties in nice parts of town, smoke cigarettes, and get busy in an elevator. They enjoy all the modern trappings of a great life, though Sam feels like they’ve become too suburban and Max is constantly lamenting their state of existence, flirting with the idea of cheating with one of his students. It’s a plight common to many elites around the world and little more unique when set in Johannesburg—though Sam bribing the police to get Max out of a potential drunk driving arrest brought forth the spectre of corruption.
Lediga’s subtle, yet balanced, commentary on the inequities among white and black South Africans in post-apartheid Johannesburg let his comedic roots shine through:
Sam: “I really love Braam[fontein]. We should totally get a place here and stay here.”
Max: “No. I just hate the fact that just a few years ago, white people were too scared to come out here, and now they’re out here overcharging us for steaks and real estate. It’s just not right, man.”
Sam: “Why must you racialize everything? It’s so unnecessary.”
Max: “I racialize everything because I’m South African. It’s my culture. It’s how I was made.”
Regarding Max leaving Heiner at home with Sam while he’s on a trip, a friend says:
“Let me get this straight…you left a guy with your wife at home together? Just chilling? That’s like leaving your colonialist with all your treasures. Look, I don’t want to be disrespectful to your wife, but that dude is gonna colonize that ass.”
Despite its great dialogue, outstanding ensemble cast, and solid performances, though, the characters all have pretty great lives and, perhaps because of it, try to screw them up in predictable ways. The stakes finally feel sufficiently raised when Max’s suspicions of Sam and Heiner having had sex threaten his marriage and his job.
It’s safe to say we’ll be seeing a lot more films from Lediga and the entire cast—especially straight-man Omotoso, a director in his own right, whose turn as Max’s best friend who strikes up an affair with a married woman, provides a strong comedic subplot.
And to its credit, “Catching Feelings” is a multiracial South African film that’s not explicitly about race — though the somewhat peaceful coexistence of its characters often belies Lediga’s incisive racial commentary.