Movie Review: High Fantasy

Jenna Cato Bass is the writer-director of indie romance comedy and mystery drama, Love the One You Love. Quirky, intricate and gently compelling, it was a shiny trinket of a romance drama, which while experimental, had a a clear and present vision. Leaning on some solid performances and spontaneous dialogue, it had substance, heart and resonance. Unfortunately, these achievements are lacking in her more collaborative, deeply experimental, shoestring budget feature, High Fantasy.

One can admire Bass for her drive to invigorate a new wave of film-making in South Africa, demonstrating what can be done on a micro budget whilst addressing timely political, gender and class issues. While this reflective foray into guerilla film-making is noble, using an iPhone almost exclusively much like Unsane, the result seems like a missed opportunity.

Casting promising young actors who mix a part of themselves with some of the writer-director’s aims for High Fantasy, there’s a strong collaborative element at play. The ensemble is made up of: Qondiswa James, Nala Khumalo, Francesca Varrie Michel, Liza Scholtz and Loren Loubser. This investment from her tight cast, who are also credited as writers, gives the film a documentary feel, which is anchored by the interspersion of character interviews.

High Fantasy is brutally honest and timely… encompassing land expropriation, racial prejudice, the #metoo movement and gender issues, even if by accident. Aimed at the selfie generation, the fresh and experimental film avoids complying with typical genre conventions to its own detriment. Ordinarily this kind of movie would employ a mockumentary or found footage format. Instead, Bass wants it to remain unclassifiable and real, even at the expense of sacrificing entertainment value. While undeniably brave, the net result is frustrating, at times indistinguishable from a student road movie.

We are, we are… the youth of the nation.

Failing to create rules for this camping trip world, it becomes a case of anything goes. At first, one gets the impression that everyone’s just getting a chance to film with an iPhone as the camping expedition reaches its destination. Then, it becomes unhinged with the candid smartphone perspective taking the opportunity to film whenever, whatever without trying to explain the phone holder’s motivation.

The characters are unlikable and there’s very little to no development over the course of the film as the angry, self-righteous attitudes remain entrenched. Using coarse language frequently gives High Fantasy a fly-on-the-wall feeling, but clouds moments that seem to be building toward substantial debate or deeper exploration of the underlying issues. Instead of unpacking a few key issues, it becomes a loose canon, firing politically-charged rants in all directions without grappling with them beyond speculative statements. One wonders why these people are even friends as they remain stuck in reverse… battling a frazzled state of victimhood and selfish rage. Beyond the common denominator of alienated youth, there’s more friction than commonality and without any sense of genuine relationship – they seem as random as Big Brother contestants.

While High Fantasy checks in at a nippy 71 minutes, keeping the journey moving at a clipped pace, it lacks suspense. Having the talking head interviews peppered along the way, ensures we know every character arrives alive and almost unscathed, despite the slasher film references. Without much build up or even explanation around the body swap, there’s nothing magical about the film, beyond the prospect of young actors pouring themselves into each others characters. A great premise and concept are diluted by the superficial handling of the body swap, focusing on the physical and sexual dilemma rather than letting the characters unpack what seems to bother them most.

High Fantasy can be applauded for going there in this current politically-charged climate… but the loose-knit and candid treatment make it seem that a well-curated podcast probably would have had more staying power and a greater effect. The film is unhinged and while mostly handheld there are several shots where everything comes together beautifully. Operating from a micro budget, going in seemingly unscripted, pandering around contentious issues and trying to draw realistic performances from a young cast… one can’t help but feel that High Fantasy was too ambitious and experimental for its own good.

Bass certainly presents some interesting political ideas, some good contrasts and is inspiring to young film-makers to get out there and create, but this effort seems like a work in progress. High Fantasy will appeal more to millennials, especially with a woke disposition, but will struggle to transfix those who rely on more conventional narrative formats and genre footholds. Here’s hoping that her next film project, an adventure western set in the Karoo called Flatland, will have absorbed much of the learning done in High Fantasy.

The bottom line: Unhinged