Movie Review: Ellen – The Ellen Pakkies Story

Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story tells of the troubled relationship between a mother and her drug-addicted son. This is a film directed by Daryne Joshua, a name to watch after his previous crime drama, Noem My Skollie, was selected as South Africa’s official representative for Best Foreign film at the Academy Awards. The story of Ellen Pakkies is devastatingly powerful, one of the few documented cases of a mother murdering her adult child. Set in Lavender Hill, Cape Town, a suburb known for gang activity and drug-related crime, we meet Ellen, played quite effortlessly by Jill Levenberg, having just turned herself into the police. Moving back in time, events following her arrest are contrasted with the horrific downward spiral of her son, Abie, in a transformative turn by Jarrid Geduld.

This authentic and honest social realism drama and character portrait is carefully calibrated, presenting a tragic tale of how a teenager and his family were destroyed by an addiction to tik, better known as crystal meth, simultaneously telling the story of a mother who simply exhausted every option in terms of seeking help. The quiet desperation is raw as financial constraints and a growing drug dependency intersect in an already tense domestic situation. Ellen is a story of layers, where hurt upon hurt compound in a community ravaged by gangsterism, violence and sexual violence.

The drama is anchored by earnest and emphatic co-lead performances from Levenberg and Geduld. Levenberg delivers an honest and naturalistic performance, completely surrendering herself to the role. Feeding off Geduld’s dark energy and the sickly context, their shared screen time is when the drama sizzles the most. A screen actor since his debut in the title role in Boy Called Twist, this explosive performance from Geduld will surely be his calling card for some time, transforming from an ordinary kid into a drug-fueled monster. The supporting ensemble includes a wealth of experience with dependable performances from the likes of Elton Landrew, Grant Swanby, Russel Savadier and Clint Brink.

“I can’t find my way home.”

Ellen is an engrossing and eloquently directed character portrait. The treatment is honest, real and unpretentious giving us the impression of real characters with a great understanding of the neighbourhood and culture. The production design and locations are authentic to the point of blurring the line between reality and illusion – giving the backdrop a hard-hitting documentary realism.

Much like Once Were Warriors, Ellen pulls the rug up to reveal a nest of deep-seated social issues affecting South Africans of all ages. The subject matter is no laughing matter, yet some of the vernacular and distinctly homegrown familiarity will amuse local audiences, as witnessed during a screening close to the actual stomping ground. While a bit long, the vivid soundtrack, raw honesty and true power of this confessional drama make it a compelling and rich character study.

Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story is a message movie with the sort of clout that should get people to take notice, sending a clear warning to parents and challenging the state social responsibility. Hopefully films and stories like Ellen’s will create the platform to address the closed door epidemic that seems to be largely ignored in South Africa.

The bottom line: Powerful