There’s emotional satisfaction in hating. It helps one cope with the Curse of Relative Deprivation. “Why am I here while this rich, no-talent so-and-so is out living a better version of my life?” You know. That.
And Max, the hero of “Catching Feelings,” is a great hater. Max, played by writer-director Kagiso Lediga, is a fiction writing professor in the New South Africa.
That’s the hook of this lightweight delight, a Johannesburg of integration, black oligarchs joining the white ones running the show and young, hip, funny, accomplished and racially diverse circles of friends hitting the clubs, the bars and poetry readings — and coming on to each other, as they do.
And Max hates it, if rather good-naturedly.
He’s got a more successful musician brother, who has to pick up the check for a birthday outing Max was planning on paying for. He’s a “Rolling Stone” artist to watch.
“That’s got to be LOCAL ‘Rolling Stone,’ right?”
He has a best pal academic (Akim Omotoso) he can have flip discussions about “cultural appropriation” of the N-word (but NEVER “the K-word” — “kaffir”), and of the hot coeds all around them with. But going to hear a famous South African novelist (Andrew Buckland) lecture just unleashes more bemused dismissal.
Max, a blocked writer with one novel under his belt, says he’s tired of “that bleeding heart white liberal view of the ‘plight of Africa,'” a view coming from an ex-pat who chose to flee Africa for Australia. Jealous? Sure. Until the guy compliments him on his book, “Lost Among the Roses.”
And he’s got a smart, witty wife Sam (Pearl Thusi), a journalist pretty enough to keep him from the frank temptations of fangirl students. Maybe. He doesn’t hate her.
But that hip newly-gentrified corner of town where they love to eat out?
“I just hate the fact that a few years ago white people were too scared to come out here, and now they’re here over-charging us for steaks and beer. It’s just not right!”
Yes, he “racializes everything.” He’s got a Volvo and a house in the gated suburbs because, well, he’s a classist, too. He’s not that keen on working class black people, either.
It takes a day of drinking and bickering with the old white novelist, and another day of touring the land by Rolls Royce or bicycle, from brothels to front porch beers in the townships, to get Max to “relax” and maybe see how homeland he thought he knew.
That’s one way of looking at the drinking, carousing and flirting with the cute coed
(Zandile Tisani) who is always coming on to him.
Lediga has a hipster’s ease on camera and in Max, he’s created a “losing my hipness” character of vulnerability and abrasive charm. He makes a funny drunk pontificator, not quite out of his depth, but unguarded enough to not see the trap he’s falling into.
The plot, which takes a few too many predictable turns, isn’t as interesting as the characters and the rich milieu Lediga puts them. Buckland gets across a wonderfully entitled Great Writer swagger, and Lediga and Thursi have a sexy, brittle chemistry that runs with her sex appeal and his almost-jealous fear of that sex appeal.
“Catching Feelings” ambles along — No hurry? No worries. — and feels too slight to justify its running time, no matter how flip and funny the dialogue sometimes is.
Slice-of-life moments — chats in the market, bar chats about “the state of marriage” with threesome-pitching strangers, a life insurance sales pitch that devolves into a fight, tempted by the fruit of another, sex in an elevator, hangovers — all the fodder of scores of romantic comedies before this one.
The South Africanness gives it flavor and the players give it spark. “Catching Feelings” is a South African film without the ugly history, without the pious treatment of that history. This is South Africa without guilt (much) but with drinks and banter and a casual sexual tension that almost never fails to tickle.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, frank depictions of sexuality, and cartoon depictions of same
Cast: Kagiso Lediga, Pearl Thursi, Andrew Buckland, Precious Makgaretsa
Credits: Written and directed by Kagiso Lediga. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:56