David (Presley Chweneyagae) - whose nickname is "Tsotsi", meaning "thug" - is a gang member and petty criminal in his late teens living in a shantytown outside Johannesburg. His life changes after a carjacking where he shoots a woman and prompted by a mixture of guilt and other emotions, steals her baby and tries to take care of it himself.
Review by Jake Wilson:
Updating an early novel by the celebrated playwright Athol Fugard, Tsotsi makes its bid for youth appeal with a fair amount of violence and a soundtrack partially made up of Kwaito music - a modern South African form of pop music setting moody, spoken commentary against house beats. Ultimately, though, it boils down to a conventionally humanist coming-of-age story, presumably following the 1960s social-realist template of its source material but marred by a certain patness; it could easily be set as an improving text in a high-school English class.
In fairness, the story of David's redemption is less sappy in practice than it sounds on paper; the baby he steals is mainly a semi-comic prop, toted around in shopping bags and screaming at awkward moments. For the film as a whole the director, Gavin Wood, uses a simple but intelligent visual plan, as if intending to address the audience as directly as possible. Full-frontal close-ups alternate with locked-down wide shots where the action is viewed as if on a stage, perhaps suggesting how the trapped characters are unable to transcend their milieu. Yet other wide shots of the shanty town suggest a literally "higher" viewpoint, as does the configuration of David's first-floor corrugated-iron hut, a haven from his day-to-day battles stacked with stolen audiovisual equipment.
In the lead, Presley Chweneyagae is charismatic if stolid - an icon of baby-faced toughness who might have been cast for his ability to look good in a leather jacket. The character's wretched past is outlined in confessional monologues (his father even killed his beloved dog) while one of his fellow gang-members rambles drunkenly about "decency" in scenes that again seem to follow Fugard's didactic approach. In this vision, the hero's turn to crime is understood as a direct consequence of poverty and suffering ('I'm depraved because I'm deprived!' as a character from West Side Story expressed it back in the day). It's hard to quarrel with the gist of this, yet the glamour of crime is also the film's main selling point - and the teens-in-trouble genre needs a fresher way of seeing if it's to rise above the easy combination of low-life thrills and uplifting sentiment.
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(UK/South Africa, 2005)
CAST: Presley Chweneyagae, Mothusi Magano, Israel Makoe, Percy Matsemela, Jerry Mofokeng, Benny Moshe
PRODUCER: Peter Fudakowski
DIRECTOR: Gavin Hood
SCRIPT: Gavin Hood (Novel by Athol Fugard)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lance Gewer
EDITOR: Megan Gill
MUSIC: Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian, Vusi Mahlasela
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Emilia Roux
RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Rialto Entertainment
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 13, 2006
RIVERSIDE SCREEN PREMIERES
A program of premiere screenings of new movies prior to their commercial release
on 6 consecutive Tuesdays, starts February 17, 2015 at Riverside Theatre,
Curated & presented by Andrew L. Urban, discussion to
follow with special guests. Briefing notes provided.