Jenna Cato Bass (director)
71 mins (length)
02 May 2020 (released)
03 May 2018
High Fantasy follows four South African youths on a camping trip to one of the group’s family farm. Importantly, they represent a mixture of different genders and races. Lexi, whose family owns the farm, is white, as she is constantly reminded by her 3 friends, all of whom are black. Of the other two women, Xoli is outspoken and unapologetic, where Tatiana is more reserved. Then there’s Thami, the only male in the group, only invited because Lexi’s uncle insisted on a male presence.
The conflict derived from this mix is immediately obvious. Writer-director Jenna Cato Bass wastes no time in setting Thami up as a arrogant chauvinist, with Xoli as his biggest decrier. Lexi too rarely escapes scrutiny, but seems to invite it, insisting in one instance that she would be the first to die in a horror movie, whilst the others argue that the black characters are always the first to go. With the stage all set for a dramatic turn, the gang all fall asleep. And the next day when they wake up, they have all switched bodies.
The Freaky Friday-esque comedy that would usually follow in the character’s realisation of this change evaporates within the first minute. The situation is serious, perhaps worst for Xoli, who awakens in Lexi’s body. Incensed, or maybe terrified, by being trapped in the skin of a white woman, she struggles the most to embrace the change, though it is not easy for any of them.
A lot of credit must go to the actors in this piece. The subtlety each of them exhibits is commendable when emulating their fellow actors. Nala Khumalo’s performance is notably exquisite, as his cocky demeanour is replaced by Tatiana’s feminine sensitivity, altering almost everything about his physical and vocal performance. Bass’s control in manipulating her performers is impressive, and her understanding of the characters clear, leading to a handful of stunning moments. Particularly striking are the slow shots of the characters marvelling at their new bodies in the hopeful, sun soaked African setting.
At a certain point, however, it seems that Bass does not know how to delicately tie off this story. The appearance of another friend at the camp jolts the characters into a third act that they weren’t ready for and didn’t need; and is followed all too swiftly by a resolution. Distractions hinder the film’s progression throughout: the shaky-cam/found footage filming is tiring after five minutes, and documentary style cutaways are obvious and fail to hold attention. With the aid of hindsight, the characters answer the questions of an unseen director about their experience, but never reveal anything that couldn’t be learned from the main story of the film.
In one of these cutaways, Tatiana reveals that she was glad it was Lexi who ended up in her body, as she knew Lexi would not harm her. This sentiment typifies the fault in Bass’s message. Instead of an intelligent remark on both race and gender in modern South Africa, the film becomes a character study into the fear and discomfort of a fictional occurrence. Once the inevitable swap back occurs, the overriding feeling the characters exhibit is one of selfish relief to be themselves again. None of them have learned anything, or have particularly changed in any way, and the ending misses poignancy by a mile. Bass’s comment on Nelson Mandela’s supposed Rainbow Nation is decidedly cynical, but it is not measured or weighty enough to be truly impactful.