Directed by Jena Cato Bass
Written by Jenna Bass, Qondiswa James, Nala Khumalo, Francesca Varrie Michel, Liza Scholtz, and Loren Loubser
How is this for a set-up? Two or more people suddenly swap bodies and have to live with their new physical appearances for an extended period of time, learning a few life lessons along the way about walking in someone else’s shoes. Surely many movie lovers have heard that one before, usually in comedies, and it certainly is a brilliant premise for hilarious hijinks to ensue, but what if the more dramatically enticing potential of such a plot was embraced? What if said concept involved not just different people switching bodies, but also races, and in some cases sex? To cap it off, what if the unexpected, mystical experience occurred between four teenagers living in South Africa, a country whose history is bereft with racial tension? NOW you have a movie, and it’s called High Fantasy.
Tatiana (Liza Scholtz), Lexi (Francesca Varrie Michel), Xoli (Qondiswa James), and Thami (Nala Khumalo) set off on a little getaway to a farm owned by Lexi’s family out in rural South Africa. Ironically, Lexi is the only Caucasian member in the group, making the fact that her family owns land acquired through dubious means many moons ago something of sticking point with the remaining trio. Xoli is a passionate social justice advocate, and while on friendly terms with Lexi, definitely has strong political views on white-black relations. Tatiana is the in-between, a soft-spoken, friendly-by-nature girl that spent time abroad in China. Then there is Thami, the only chap in the quartet — a party dude, often thinking with his private parts, loud mouthed. One morning after camping under the stars, they all wake up…but someone else’s body!
There is no definition of what consist a ‘great movie.’ Film discussion is purely subjective, despite however much a plethora of film reviews are written as if the opinion expressed therein is somehow factual. One supposes it simply facilitates the communication of ideas. All that being said, sometimes a movie comes along that takes one’s breath away, that leaves a powerfully emotional impression for all sorts of fascinating reasons. High Fantasy, from director Jenna Cato Bass (and co-written by just about all the actors that appear throughout), is that movie in 2017, at least thus far. It is a wonderfully accomplished piece of work, made with intelligence, craftsmanship, heart, and a funny bone to boot despite the occasionally challenging topics broached.
Worthy of note is that the entire project was captured on an iPhone. This is not the first film to take its chances on smart phone technology for production, and it often looks gorgeous. One imagines Apple is partly to thank for creating such a brilliant camera on their smart phones (they really are pretty darn good), but it also takes a sharp director’s eye to actually capture the action in interesting fashion. During the Q&A session following the film it was revealed that the cast members had a small hand in filming some scenes under director Bass’s guidance, making this a uniquely collaborative effort aside from the fact that pretty much everyone involved also served some writing duties to varying degrees. High Fantasy delivers stupendously on so many fronts that it’s rather hard to keep count. First, and most obviously, it’s at times very funny. How could it not go for some laughs when a machismo sex maniac suddenly discovers he’s a girl? Or that a girl realizes she is in a male body, or that somebody who is Caucasian is now Black, and vice versa? Yes, these shocking revelations result in several hearty chuckles and a solid dose of uproarious laughter, but said comedy soon subsides into more mature territory.
Most impressively, the film forsakes the opportunity to dwell in a comedy (which would probably still have been quite fun), preferring to venture into murkier waters, ones that tackle much more heady subject matter, from the battles of the sexes to race relations. It is in such moments that Bass’ picture goes from maddeningly entertaining to thought-provoking and challenging, at times unapologetically so. Pushing the envelope just a little further still, Fantasy does not end with a neatly-tied bow once the quartet are mercifully transported back to their original selves. Nay, the final third follows the four friends, whose bonds are more tenuous than before, once they are back to normal, forced to reckon with what they felt and thought. All of this is intercut with each character being interviewed by an unseen figure in the aftermath once cooler heads have prevailed.
Lastly, kudos must be given to the cast, who not only must create their original characters, but also contend with playing another character, playing up the other’s mannerisms to a tee. None of the actors are well known, and are all quite young; only time will tell if they move on to bigger things at home or abroad. Suffice to say, rarely has a movie thrown its cast members such a starkly challenging task, for they have to contend with exchanging heated ideas not just as their characters, but sometimes as one another’s characters as well.
If there is any justice in the cinema world, High Fantasy will get some kind of international release and hopefully not suffer the same fate as far too many quality films that live and die on the festival circuit. Wide theatrical release, limited theatrical, instant streaming, anything. Certainly in North American and Western Europe, where the issue of race relations has practically reached a boiling point in the past few years, Jenna Cato Bass’ film would serve as a harsh if no less stimulating and useful look in the mirror.