Movie Review: Stroomop

Whitewater rafting in Africa is an absolute thrill whether you’re crashing through rapids on the Zambezi or journeying down the Orange River. It seems surprising that there hasn’t been an adventure film like this sooner. Stroomop, which means upstream, follows the lives of five women with their own personal struggles, who join a whitewater rafting expedition. As their back stories unfold through flashbacks, we learn more about their troubles and why this getaway adventure is important to them. When things go awry, their survival instincts kick in forcing them to dig deep. 

This is Ivan Botha’s directorial debut. He and DonnaLee Roberts have become a formidable duo when it comes to film-making in South Africa following favourable and relatively successful box office outings with Pad na jou Hart and Vir Altyd. Typically playing romantic comedy co-leads, Stroomop finds them on either end of the camera, delving into the realm of action adventure drama. This coming-of-age ensemble piece features a predominantly female cast, which ties in quite purposefully with Women’s Month and Day. Into the Wild followed a young adventurer on his journey of self-realisation and in a similar bent to Wild, this female-led drama brings several stories together as the expedition takes a turn for the worse.

Using flashbacks to relay the turmoil in the hearts and minds of each of these women, their stories rise to the surface as the river becomes a symbol for adversity and their emotional state. While emotive, Stroomop is much safer than it could have been, trying to speak to issues affecting women in South Africa without localising or intensifying it to the point of becoming a challenging viewing experience. Releasing in Women’s Month, it’s more of an inspiration to be independent and tough rather than tackling broader social issues.

“Hahaha… why are we all laughing?”

The ensemble is solid, bolstered by some up-and-coming to established South African stars. DonnaLee Roberts is the generous and unassuming lead, who’s supported by Simoné Nortmann, Chanelle de Jager, Armand Aucamp, Carla Classen and Ilse Klink. Her understated performance serves as the anchor to the cast, who each get an equal measure of the story. While characterised by earnest performances, focusing more on Roberts and reducing the number of back stories would have given the film-makers and audience more time to truly connect with their characters.

It’s enjoyable to accompany the adventurers with up close rapids action and beautiful views of the Orange River. While they’ve kept the production within manageable limits, Stroomop deserves extra credit for shooting on water and on location… a difficult undertaking for just about any film-maker. While the survival adventure instinct keeps the tension constantly on standby, some of the turns are overwrought and it operates in a naïve current, taking inspiration from a number of more assured survival adventure dramas.

You can forgive the typical product placements, but there’s a superficial atmosphere when it comes to the drama, giving it a daytime drama meets reality adventure undertone. While Stroomop’s heart is in the right place, it’s a bit too contrived and melodramatic to rise above. It’s an admirable and ambitious effort, aiming to entertain in a meaningful and inspiring way. While it will find an audience, it would have benefited from a grittier treatment and more character focus.

The bottom line: Respectable