One-liner: noble ambitions, sincere performances and timely issues soften an overwrought script and uneven film-making.
Thando is a social drama that journeys with a schoolgirl on the verge of suicide, who revisits some of the life events that shaped her impending decision to end it all. Following a serious bullying incident, where a video goes viral, Thando finds herself humiliated, disillusioned and questioning her faith – a lost soul. Unable to see a path through the torment, she questions whether it’s worth going on at all as she considers hanging herself with an extension cord in her bedroom.
This issues drama comes from actor and Losing Lerato producer, Kagiso Modupe, in his directorial debut. As an actor, Modupe is able to coax convincing performances from his cast in Zikhona Bali, Thembi Nyandeni and Mpho Sebeng. Painting the actors into the picture, he ensures there’s an in-the-moment emotional resonance, a driving sense of authenticity as carried by Bali in a heartfelt performance as Thando through her many trials. The supporting performances are earnest and go a long way to keeping a degree of emotional investment, however the net result is rather shaky as important as its issues are.
Dealing with abuse, abortion, gender-based violence, suicide and the trappings of having a blesser, this timely South African drama has a finger on the pulse. While far from gratuitous, the raw social topics have edge and this drama isn’t for sensitive viewers. One gets the impression that Thando was crafted around social issues in a way to serve as an educational film with artistic merit rather then vice versa. As such, it powers through to present a glorified “after-school special” with more clout and grit as the seriousness of events ramp up to necessitate governmental acknowledgement.
As sincere as Thando may be, the drama is undone by an overwrought screenplay, excessive narration and tonal inconsistencies. The social drama is dense with dialogue, over-explains and creates some unbelievable scenarios, filling the air with self-talk and a showy soundtrack. Trying to offer a window into Thando’s thoughts, the inner monologue does become overused to the point that it starts to come across as if a post-production fabrication. The soundtrack is histrionic to the point of distraction, overreaching in an attempt to upscale the suspense and emotion when quieter moments would’ve siphoned more raw power from the dramatic tension.
While somewhat redeemed by its cliched resolution, the journey is often cloying and unintentionally humorous. Unaware of its dark comedy undercurrent, Thando’s grandmother keeps interrupting and thwarting her suicide attempts in a well-meaning bid to get her to share a cup of tea. A faith-based undercurrent has Thando quoting scripture, conveniently casting a blind eye when it comes to Biblical passages around suicide. As much of an open book as she may be, Thando’s perceived depth and heartfelt performances substitute for the rest of the ensemble’s loosely drawn characters.
Making a major perspective shift towards the end, it’s indicative of Thando’s propensity to do too much telling and not enough showing. The pacing is also a bit stop-start, finding its fulcrum at one primary location and using flashbacks, which are a bit confusing in the overall timeline. Doing some story acrobatics along the way, the final twist offers some relief but does come across as an edgy yet cheap trick in the grand scheme of things, subverting any haunting afterthoughts and undermining the film’s overall dramatic power.
Thando has potential and wrestles with contentious issues, leveraging its sincerity and performances to good effect. Unfortunately, as noble and watchable as it may be, the film struggles to match its earnest ambitions with film-making finesse. Constant distractions and missteps keep it off balance, overcooked and inconsistent, trading on the raw power of the inherent emotion and edge of its self-reflective and socially-relevant heartbreak.
The bottom line: Overwrought