South African film has come a long way as evidenced by Vir Die Voëls or For the Birds, a South African romantic comedy drama with a similar ebb-and-flow to the American sitcom, The Wonder Years. The film is directed by Quentin Krog, who is best known for Ballade vir 'n Enkeling. While Vir Die Voëls also has a dramatic and romantic element, its quirky comedic undertones are carried by a plucky lead character who narrates and stars. We follow Irma Humpel, beginning with her wedding day and then going back in time to her childhood as she assumes the role of invisible bystander. We fast-forward to her high school years, learning about her difficult home life situation, her decision to stay with her grandmother and forge a new life. She inadvertently reconnects with Sampie de Klerk, a boy who used to bully her as a child, and this is where the unlikely romance begins...
The Taming of the Shrew is definitely a strand to this story, as Irma gets to grips with life in South Africa. Living in a patriarchal and traditionally male-dominated culture, Irma's defiant journey finds her doing a lot of upstream swimming. She's the eptiome of "tough cookie", the kind of girl who used to beat up boys in the playground and continues this legacy into her adult life. Her fierce independence and strong will make Sampie's advances seem futile, despite his tenacity and neverending reserve of charm. Set in South Africa in the '70s, the romance between Irma and Sampie, a homefront nurse and soldier in the South African Border War, has nostalgia and a wistful edge.
The production design is authentic, carving a very accurate depiction of a seemingly forgotten time in Afrikaans culture. For a South African film, Vir die Voëls is very white – something it may be criticised for – actively avoiding race and politics in favour of keeping the spotlight on the budding small town romance. This film is inspired by a true story, focussing on a close-knit community and the "Pleasantville" scenario feeds into the notion that some white Afrikaans working class communities may have been locked in a small town bubble during the '70s. It's refreshing, brave or maybe even foolish, for a South African film to completely sidestep the A-word, even if the subliminal is highlighted by virtue of its absence and it favours tackling gender issues.
"Runaway turned bride... who would've guessed?"
When you learn of the film's origins, having been derived from a Huisgenoot reader's real-life story, you go in expecting a slapped-together project honouring a competition. However, Vir Die Voëls is anything but perfunctory... as we witness a surprisingly entertaining, spirited and passion-led project. Krog continues to impress with a film that dexterously navigates some difficult genre terrain, lacing a character's difficult upbringing and determined singleness into a film that remains upbeat, quirky and fun.
The most surprising element is Simoné Nortmann, whose star quality and presence is evident from the get-go. Reminiscent of Zoe Kazan, Nortmann's pixie features and cheeky disposition keep her likable as she immerses us in her own life story. At first, you wonder if the bride is going to narrate the entire story but the film-makers cleverly slip her into the proceedings with a license to break the fourth wall and address the audience from time-to-time. While not as instantly likable, possibly owing to his character's background, Francois Jacobs grows on us like moss. Just as cheeky, he complements Nortmann and their magnetic relationship becomes more endearing as the two push-and-pull.
The lead couple are supported by Lara Kinnear and Bennie Fourie as their best friends, Marieda and Karel, who give them respite and reasons to meet by a mistake-on purpose when they're not enjoying married life. The film is bolstered by the presence of Neels van Jaarsveld, Nicola Hanekom and Elize Cawood as Irma's father, mother and grandmother respectively. Tackling alcohol abuse and dealing with the ripple effect is a subplot, which shares a cast member and parallels aspects from 'n Man Soos My Pa. While there to add more dramatic depth and heft, these experienced actors round off a strong ensemble with fine and heartfelt performances.
Vir Die Voëls may have rose-tinted glasses and a selective memory, but this sliver of romance comedy drama will uplift film goers. The cast chemistry is fantastic, the production design is immersive, the nostalgic music will take people back, the story's verve is infectious, the performances are charming and heartfelt, the cinematography is effortless, the screenwriting is deft, the themes are universal and the direction is sensitive yet sensible. While decidedly niche, this is an entertaining and touching film that transcends the bounds of "romcom" with a thoughtful and enjoyable tour down memory lane.