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Movie Review: Johnny is Nie Dood Nie


Johnny is Nie Dood Nie, adapted from a play by Malan Steyn, is a reunion drama in the tradition of The Big Chill as four friends gather for a braai on the Sunday after Johannes Kerkorrel's suicide to reminisce about their student days. Set in 2002, Johnny is Nie Dood Nie flips back-and-forth in time to the late '80s when they were young, rebellious Stellenbosch students during the time of the Voƫlvry tour. Embracing the protest music of Kerkorrel, Koos Kombuis and Bernoldus Niemand, these hedonistic rebels carved a path in opposition to the National Party government and conscription. Now, more than a decade later, they've grown accustomed to the vibacrete walls of suburbia, haunted by the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of their varsity friend, Johnny.

This is a wild and restless coming-of-age drama, which juxtapositions the evolution of a group of friends and two ages in South African history. We are introduced to four people at a braai, who with some reluctance are brought together to rehash the past. Through flashbacks, we get a clearer picture and background to the relationships at play and how they have influenced each other. Discussing some of the banal details of their diluted lifestyles with much longing and a solemn atmosphere, they reminisce about the good times and reconcile the past as if they were attending Johnny's wake. Through the lens of Afrikaans pop culture and alternative folk music, we get immersed in student culture and the South Africa of the '80s.

Director Christiaan Olwagen makes his feature film debut seem effortless. He's created an actor's film, giving his talented ensemble enough screen time and depth of character to thrive. This is a good thing considering the majority of the film happens in one location and focuses on their fractious, almost incestuous relationships. A playwright and an actor, this director has a comprehensive understanding of drama and uses this to leverage strong, committed performances from his actors.

Johnny is Nie Dood Nie

"Don't stop living, Johnny..."

Rolanda Marais has a similar intensity to Radha Mitchell - she is unassumingly beautiful and able to navigate a steady median between the worlds of comedy and drama. Her leading role as Lise demonstrates her range as an actor and will undoubtedly serve as her calling card for years to come. Roelof Storm's enigmatic take on Johnny makes it seem like he was inspired in part by Kurt Cobain and Joseph Fiennes. Ludwig Binge has great screen presence and seethes with unchecked rage as Hein. Ilana Cilliers delivers a spirited performance as the no-nonsense Anja, while Albert Pretorius keeps things down-to-earth in a key role as the breezy, consistent and ever-present nice guy, Dirk.

Olwagen must have been inspired by the behind-the-scenes play within a film, Birdman. He's opted for a core cast and continuous shots, allowing the camera to roam freely around his subjects. While it hasn't been edited to create the illusion of one shot, this is the primary shooting style of Johnny is Nie Dood Nie. While the cinematography makes moments more authentic and spontaneous in one sense, the fluidity of movement does detract from the intimacy of the performances and also draws one's attention from story to technique on more than one occasion. This choice does raise the film's profile, elevating it from a local production into something more artful and international, and while a little gimmicky at times - it works!

Careful planning and forethought give the drama a natural rhythm, which together with solid performances, enable Olwagen to establish a free-flowing sense of reality. Johnny is Nie Dood Nie could easily be adapted back to stage, yet justifies its film status by virtue of execution, harnessing a similar pent-up sense of the spontaneous and unpredictable. This is evidenced by a meandering party scene, which demonstrates the power of this vicarious walkthrough reality. As impressive as it is, there are a few moments when the swirling camera does get a bit monotonous.

Johnny is Nie Dood Nie is a bit raw when it comes to the non-stop party lifestyle of the friends, who are in each other's pockets. The hard edge makes it difficult to empathise for the self-destructive characters and as a result its a rather hollow and detached film experience. While verging on gratuitous at times, the use of bad language, drugs, alcohol and sex is frequent, which is to be expected in a movie about sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. It's rough and angst-filled, yet the natural dialogue-heavy format is similar to dramas from Richard Linklater, making it more niche and art house in its approach. The visual decadence and detail will keep the Instagram generation happy as the film oozes with retro cool, while older viewers will be transported by the nostalgic mood and music.

Christiaan Olwagen has burst onto the scene with an artful, moody, stylish and refreshing coming-of-age reunion drama that brims with spirited performances, lures with the recklessness of youth and immerses with inspired cinematography. While a little repetitive, alienating and in search of its core, Johnny is Nie Dood Nie captures the Zeitgeist and uncertainty of South Africa in the '80s through free-flowing dialogue, and powers home with an angst-riddled, haunting and self-reflective vigor.

The bottom line: Wild