Sodium Day is a comedy drama that settles into the a day-in-the-life of a Grade 12 class at John Shelby High in the Cape Flats. Weeks before their final exams the students haven’t got a Maths teacher, having gone through a number of ill-equipped substitute teachers in the process. Made up of an apathetic and disillusioned group of mostly black and coloured learners, a poorly managed cultural exchange programme brings a privileged class from a private school into their already chaotic environment.
Starting with an explosion, using a chunk of sodium from the chemistry lab, Sodium Day switches to its primary location, a classroom where a handful of matric students who could make it to class are busy with an otherwise typical school day. Trains are running late (or not running at all), a substitute History and English teacher has arrived to take Maths and class clowns are ensuring a steady stream of distraction to speed up what could already be detention. Weaving the story of a missing girl, a jealous gangster and a visiting group of private school learners into the mix, Sodium Day reflects real issues affecting government schools and socio-economic hardships facing poor communities.
Writer-director Riaz Solker has fond memories of his school days and has been on both sides of the classroom in South Africa and the UK, giving him a special vantage point when it comes to challenges facing the education system. He invests both nostalgia and issues-driven politics into his screenplay touching on issues such as discipline, teenage pregnancy, racism, gender-based violence, infrastructure, alcoholism, shortage of teachers, underqualified appointments and slow-boiling tensions between teachers and students. Solker drives at challenges faced by current leaners without becoming overly preachy or cumbersome, maintaining a good pace and a check on entertainment value. Pulling it all together to create a cohesive slice-of-life comedy drama and keeping it both entertaining and thought-provoking is a real accomplishment, delivering what could easily serve as an equally incisive stage production.
While focused on the classroom, the dexterous cinematography keeps things on the move, portraying a fairly neutral space without becoming dull. By closing in on the multitude of actors, Sodium Day remains fresh, making good use of lighting to keep the visuals as fascinating as the faces. Its timely themes should resonate with local audiences, who will be saddened by the devastatingly accurate reflection yet amused by the insubordinate back chat, slang and inside jokes. Solker leans on familiar character types for comedic effect and expands on them to add texture. The tragic issues are present and could have been more devastating as a more focused drama yet are treated with a lightness of touch to leave room for comic relief.
“Sir, I see “Explain Pink Floyd’s ‘Just Another Brick in the Wall.” is only for 5 marks?”
While Sodium Day cleverly weaves a great number of the education system’s failings into an authentic setting with relatable characters, it struggles with consistency when it comes to tone, performances and an underdeveloped screenplay. It’s punted as a comedy drama with tragic undertones but struggles to find a comfortable balance, seesawing between comedy and drama. The schoolboy pranks suggest comedy but the subversive slant and frustration of a failing education system lean toward drama as the dangers of their fallen world loom on the horizon. It’s tricky to get this genre mix right, further complicated by intermittent daydreams of an absent student, a makeover and a left-field rap battle. While these elements add spice and entertainment value, they also undermine the genre consistency and probably would’ve worked better in the realm of American Vandal style mockumentary.
Sodium Day is a passion project, which was made on a shoestring budget and relies on many current and former acting students. Casting students as matric learners is a masterstroke, limiting the primary shooting location to a school and then focusing on a classroom, choices that help conserve resources and give filmmakers more control. While these preliminary decisions show foresight, the sprawling cast compels and complicates matters. Trying to siphon a consistent level of performance from such a broad cast is already a chore, which is made even more complex by initiating so many debutants. While there are some promising performances with spirited turns from Ashlon Thomas and Lucian Daniels with Charlton George as headmaster, Sodium Day has a theatrical undercurrent, limited by inexperience and inconsistency.
The screenplay may have been brewing for many years but seems rushed and underdeveloped. While an ensemble drama has to serve many characters, Sodium Day struggles to go deeper with characters and issues. Apart from a tragedy to encompass everything like Necktie Youth did, there’s little to no growth for the characters in spite of having ample opportunity. Hosting a broad cast of familiar characters makes this easier to forgive but it seems to do the same with its list-of-issues drama. The story cleverly integrates various social issues but the check list is so long that they mostly serve as tent poles. While the bookends help, they could have been better utilised with a slow-build.
A major setback is Sodium Day’s unreasonably high 18 age restriction, barring a significant target audience. Perhaps this is a response to the film’s potential to incite similar actions or stir up political anguish among scholars who have a legacy when it comes to protest action in South Africa. Sodium Day does have it’s sodium explosion, gangster diversion and addresses education system inadequacies, but it’s actually quite tame, mostly centred on typical high school classroom insubordination and the kind of things kids are experiencing every day. Conversely, giving the film an 18 age restriction could actually work in its favour by stirring up underground interest and cult appeal.
As a feature film debut for many, Sodium Day brims with potential and raw talent as it grapples with important issues as if it was adapted from a stage play. While commendable based on its constraints, limited resources and unquestionable dedication, it could have left a much more powerful impression. Unfortunately, while earnest, thematically rich and timely, the comedy drama is largely undermined by seesawing inconsistency and the screenplay deserved more time in development. Perhaps a theatrical run would have given the script more gestation time and the actors a chance to sink into their characters.
The bottom line: Promising