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Canary (2018)
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by Jay Seaver

"Thankfully, not as nostalgic as it seems."
4 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 21: There's a line in "Canary" that doesn't so much save the movie as affirm that the filmmakers know exactly what they are doing, and while it may be a little bit on-the-nose, it's not necessarily a bad thing for characters in a coming-of-age film to have what they've earned spelled out, especially when the film seems ready to go in the opposite direction. This one's smarter than that, enough to impress and be worth one's attention no matter how far it may seem from one's own experience.

It takes place in South Africa, the middle of the 1980s, with Johan Niemand (Schalk Bezuidenhout) graduating high school and about to begin his compulsory military service. Johan is nobody's idea of a soldier - music is his thing, with Culture Club his current obsession - so it seems best for all involved that he gets chosen for the South African Defense Force's Church Choir and Concert Group, also known as The Canaries. He quickly makes two friends in Ludolf Otterman (Germandt Geldenhuys), a big, affable classical music buff who seems to have less business being in the military than Johan, and Wolfgang MĂĽller (Hannes Otto), a handsome fellow whose tastes match Johan's. Of course, they can't act on their attraction too obviously; though the Canaries are where a place where gay men in the SADF can find sanctuary, Reverend Koch (GĂ©rard Rudolf), one of the two chaplains in charge of the group, is very keen that they observe military discipline and project traditional moral rectitude, even if colleague Reverend Engelbrecht (Jacques Bessenger) seems a bit more understanding.

Apartheid as an official government policy has likely started to fade from memory a bit by now; there's a generation that has grown up after its fall, and there are times when Canary seems to fall victim to how the details can be forgotten. The long stretches where the audience doesn't see anyone with dark skin can sometimes feel like filmmaker Christiaan Olwagen is wearing blinders to make a movie that looks back at this period of South African history without showing the circumstances that largely defined it, although that may be the result of an outsider perspective. What he is doing is to show how the nation's culture of white supremacy even twists the culture of those who passively benefit from it: Talk of the Olympics has soldiers venting their indignation at their country being a pariah, while attempts to justify this order almost inevitably lead to religion (because this belief needs to seem to come from a higher authority) and homophobia (definitions of ideal people brook no deviation). Johan and his friends are in the crosshairs of the latter, and sometimes Olwagen has trouble when shifting focus between "it was bad for the gay community too" to "bigotry poisons society as a whole", though it's not really his fault that the story he's telling exists in the shadow of a much larger one.

On top of that, his goal in making this picture is not something totally downbeat; even in a bad situation there are fun times and things you learn from, and Canary has plenty of that, with occasional forays into being a full-on musical which can be plenty entertaining and a good handle on bonding and emerging from one's shell. He and his crew capture the moment in their country's history in a way that's not overbearing but clear; every scene finds little ways to reinforce the place's self-image of a simple place connected to virtuous tradition (simple, unadorned architecture and a grey area between patriotism and religion) and the messier, less ordered world of pop music, different sexualities, and people who flatly say this is all wrong that they can't avoid.

Schalk Bezuidenhout sometimes gets a bit of a hard draw in that keeping the movie going sometimes means Johan can be a bit of a selfish young man as much as the stumbling farm kid. It's better than him being a blank, even if the point is to be easy for the viewer to project himself onto him. He plays well off Hannes Otto's Wolfgang, though; Otto gives Wolfgang the combined sense of self and instincts for presenting the portions most likely to be accepted to make him an interesting complement to Johan, while Germandt Geldenhuys makes for an enjoyable third musketeer.

Jacques Bessenger's Reverend Engelbrecht gets the line that snaps everything into position and makes it a bit more universal despite its very specific setting, and in doing so somewhat inverts what these stories usually emphasize about forming a close bond in a bad situation. It's right to do so, even if it often seems to be doing the conventional thing.

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originally posted: 06/20/19 21:46:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Boston Underground Film Festival 21 For more in the Boston Underground Film Festival 21 series, click here.

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