SPUD. Starring John Cleese and Troye Sivan. Directed by Donovan Marsh. Rated M (Mature themes and sexual references). 107 mins.
Durban, 1990. Life in South Africa is about to change radically. As shown during this film, F.W. de Klerk, makes his speech in parliament and announces the release of Nelson Mandela.
This is the background to this story of a year of a young boy in boarding school. While the film does not focus so much on the politics, the situation comes to the fore in racist remarks, expressions of fears of the blacks and securing homes with barbed wire and in the place of black African boys in the school.
The film is based on a popular book by John van der Ruit. More bloggers than not are of the opinion that it is quite faithful to the book and its spirit.
The school itself is a mixture of rules and discipline yet a spirit of freedom (and getting away with what you can) on the part of the students. There is the public school look about it, but not quite as controlled as in ‘the good old days’.
John Milton’s parents (or, at least his father and his grandmother) are oddball, even noticeably eccentric. John thinks it might be better to be at boarding school than at home. He is small for his age. His voice has not broken, and he is not yet at the changes of puberty (which leads to the uncomplimentary nickname given him after his being seen in the showers, ‘Spud’). His initial way of thinking is to be one of the boys, to follow the attitudes and behaviour of his peers. We are introduced to the eight in his dormitory with all their characteristics: the bully, the head boy, the cricketer, the boy who brings in sex magazines, the small, rather intellectual boy that they pick on, Gecko. Speaking of the sex magazines, the first part of the film shares the adolescent boys’ preoccupation with and curiosity about sex.
The teachers are not always prominent, though we see the headmaster and a teacher who has had (allegedly) a mauling accident with a lion and gives sixers for the boys sneaking out for night swimming. But, the main teacher we meet is Mr Edery, ‘The Guv’, played by John Cleese. His first class on books is vintage Cleese, sarcastic, bombastic barbs. That is what we expected from him. However, as the film progresses, a more human side emerges, first comic, then quite tragic, something which Cleese communicates very well.
As the four terms go by, we follow John’s experiences (hopeless at sport), the reading that The Guv urges (Waitiing for Godot, Catch 22, The Lord of the Rings) and its effect on John, misbehaving with the peers, and his infatuation with Debbie, his parent’s neighbour’s daughter. She becomes his ideal, his fantasy. But, when he auditions for the school play, Oliver Twist, he also becomes infatuated with his leading lady, Amanda.
As the year goes by, John matures a little, is influenced by the wise suggestions of The Guv (while tackling The Guv on his red wine problem), experiences the friendship of Gecko and the sadness of his illness, moves to becoming a little more independent, has to face the situation with Debbie and Amanda, and is acclaimed by everyone for his performance as Oliver.
This is all to the credit of Troye Sivan, South African born, now living in Perth. He brings John to credible as well as interesting and often engaging life. A fine performance (including some singing as well).
Spud takes its place among the school stories like Dead Poets Society or The Emperor’s Club.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out April 19 2012.