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East End Film Festival: High Fantasy review - botched high-concept drama

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Jenna Bass' body-swap teen drama is too blunt to cut deep.

Cobbling together spare parts from other cultural properties can work wonders, and director Jenna Bass clearly understands that. High Fantasy, her second feature, pot-boils stark South African vistas, teen drama, found-footage, and a fantastical body-swap drama to spice up the mixture. Each component, however, is neglected in its own right; Bass has merely thrown them together in the hopes that they will create satisfying cinema. They don't.

South African teen Lexi embarks on a camping trip to her family's farming estate in the country's barren desert. She invites friends to join her and a clashing of ideologies commences. Xoli, Lexi's black friend, is passive-aggressively incensed by the colonialist means by which Lexi's family still has control of the land.

Tatiana is a diplomatic - and consequently meek, largely docile - foil to the strong personalities populating the rest of the group. And tagging along for the ride is braggadocious Thami, whose sexist language doesn't entirely deter the others from connecting with his more boyish charms. The group wakes up one morning to find that each now inhabits the body of another person. 

Body-swap stories on screen rely primarily on its cast to either bring the farce or dial it back. Of these particular players, Francesca Varrie Michel probably has the most to work with as Lexi-slash-bodyswapped-Xoli. Xoli has found herself suddenly in the body of a white girl, and coming to terms with it becomes even more difficult with the arrival of a mouthy fifth friend.

Michel nails both elements of her role - Xoli's black anger and Lexi's subsequent white guilt. But given Jenna Bass' bluntly expressed derision towards the racism in South African society, it seems odd, and rather self-defeatingly ironic, that the onscreen mouthpiece for both sides of this thorny argument should be a white character. Elsewhere, the other performers are talented enough to get as much fun as they can out of their swapped personalities (Nala Khumalo having to emulate Liza Scholtz' weediness as Thami-turned-Tatiana hit a few right notes). But the entire experience is too fleeting to dig deeper into this cast's innumerable talents. 

The found-footage element feels like a novelty. As a genre, it always implies intent with the cinematography - the camera is a part of the drama rather than an observer of it. Here it adds very little as a dramatic device, and even less from an aesthetic point of view. Does it make everything feel more real? Just barely, and that's mostly because of the cast. It almost feels as though the mockumentary structure was only there to facilitate flash-forward interviews with each character to simultaneously narrate and deconstruct the onscreen story. 

It also makes the affair blunter than such a complex story should be. The issues discussed have centuries of debate behind them, and Bass' film goes a small way towards inserting itself into that debate. Her expression of white guilt is perhaps the strongest sentiment the film has, and even that is treated with clashing sympathy and scorn. Her cast come out seeming too good for such a hit-and-miss script, their talents likely to be served better elsewhere.

High Fantasy is set to premiere at the East End Film Festival on 12th April. Find more details here.





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