“Tazmanian Devil” is a Nigerian-American morality fable that might more accurately have been titled “How I Learned to Stop Preaching and Love the Frat.”
It’s about a kid who moves in with his Nigerian pastor father so that he can attend college in Texas. But the child the father always called “My young pastor” gets a whiff of fraternity life at a fictional Historically Black University (HBCU) and finds its temptations alluring, even if — like life with his father — there’s a lot of corporal punishment involved.
The messaging is awfully murky in Solomon Onita Jr.’s debut feature film. It’s not remotely a faith-based riff on Spike Lee’s “School Daze” — too many beatings, too much swearing, entirely too much abuse of the N-word for that. But that’s how it sets up, a kid in a moral quandary, being pulled and beaten at both ends by two equally unpleasant paths presented to our hero.
Abraham Attah is Dayo, a boy raised by his mother when his “get my American visa” preacher father (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) set off to set them up in America.
Except pious, all about “God’s work” pastor Julius keeps his visits home few and far between as he is getting his ministry started. Flashbacks show us the decade and a half that passes before he finally admits he’s not moving back to Nigeria and isn’t sending for them.
Dayo is a smart kid and talented musician who gets into an American college, one in Arlington, Texas, where his father is set up. Dad is more than happy to welcome “Young Pastor” there and assign him the role as keyboardist for the spirit-filled church choir. It’s his first step toward taking up the cloth.
“The Lord is going to use you to do exploits,” he insists.
Dayo makes eyes at the hottie in the church choir, Nicole (Billie D. Merrritt), notices her dancing with her sorority to help promote the top frat on campus, and begins to develop other ideas.
Can Mr. Shy, Naive and Awkward cut it with Tau Alpha Zeta, the top dog fraternity on campus, the “Tazmanian Devils?”
He’s torn, indecisive, not something testosterone-drenched frats tolerate.
And with their “vulgar music,” partying, drill-team precision “pledge line” in Satanic mask garb, this might not be something Dayo can share with the father he only addresses as “Sir.”
So the lies begin. And the further Dayo dives into the process, the more he has to lie to cover that.
On the other side of the coin, what about this quite-boyish gawky outsider, enunciation-challenged by the shouted recitations of fraternity self-promotion demonstrations, would make the popular, cool-kids fraternity even give him a second look? The kid has a 4.0.
“He could boost the chapter’s GPA single-handed!”
The fraternity leadership (Kyle Gardner, Lynn Andrews III, etc.) decide to give him a chance, even make him “line president” of his group of pledges. The smartest guy, albeit the least physically imposing one and the very worst public speaker (timid, mush-mouthed) will be in charge of prepping his fellow pledges for passing TAZ initiation.
Nicole takes more than a passing interest in Dayo’s progress. The kid’s got it made, if he can withstand the beatings and humiliations at the frat, and to a lesser degree at home from his father.
“Be very careful what you allow into your spirit,” the pastor preaches.
The mixed messages here — fraternity vs. church, peer abuse vs. parental abuse — work against “Tazmanian Devil.”
But the details, the rituals/exploitation/abuses of fraternity life, are smartly if somewhat sadistically presented.
The frat leaders worry about how far they can go with their pledges, and go there anyway. And by American fraternity standards, their bullying and “errands” are fairly tame –save for the brutal beatings.
In casting young Attah, Onita puts him in a spotlight where he needs to have the presence to suggest something that might make him pass for a “leader,” and the charisma to charm one of the campus’s great beauties. Attah simply isn’t up to it.
Every time he’s supposed to “step up” and show leadership, spine, ability or sex appeal, he physically shrinks on the screen. The character has “determination” scripted in. The performance and performer’s lack of presence smother that.
Attah’s articulation is poor enough to make one wish for subtitles. I’ve seen plenty of Nigerian films and rarely had so much trouble buying an actor in a leading role, or understanding much of what he had to say.
Onita has made a movie which points us to a rite of passage and demands our sympathy with the character and hope for one particular outcome. He and his star fail to make their case, leaving themselves and the viewer on the fence, lost as to what we’re supposed to feel when the closing credits roll.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, violence, profanity, drug and alcohol use
Cast: Abraham Attah, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Adepero, Lynn Andrews III and Billie D. Merritt
Credits: Scripted and directed by Solomon Onita, Jr. A 1091 release.
Running time: 2:00