Review of “Society”

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Certainly, this is a situation that’s been done to death in lesbian films. The “closeted girlfriend” is right up there in the grand lesbian cliché book somewhere between the “pregnant lesbian” and the “crazed bisexual."

But while that may be true, it’s still a major issue that millions of queer people face, and here it’s handled within the context of an entirely different culture. Thuli and Beth’s drama feels as heartbreaking and relevant as the real thing, especially since they clearly love each other so much.

Society works as both an excellent piece of drama and as an examination of a culture recently transformed.

Even the film’s title is telling: it’s a play both on the well-to-do lifestyles of these four women and the actual “societies” black South Africans would form to provide financial support for one another under apartheid rule. It speaks to the two worlds that the young women straddle in their everyday lives. They observe traditional customs (such as singing at the funeral and making donations) and later text incessantly on their mobiles &#8212 they’d fit into any city in the world.

Left to right: Lois, Beth, Inno and Akua

Though it’s particular to a newly upwardly mobile generation of young black South Africans, this cultural mixing is relevant to wide swaths of the population in most parts of the world.

Society is constantly reminiscent of films about first generation immigrant children, with the obvious catch that these women are living in their country of origin. Free trade and freedom have truly transformed their society (again, playing on the title).

Beth in particular is at a cultural crossroads. She’s living a secret life with an out partner, too terrified of the judgment that she sees everywhere in her world. Caught between the modern concept of a loving same-sex relationship and keeping everything “private," she’s forced to confront her own internalized homophobia &#8212 and the traditional attitudes about what is normal and what isn’t.

Lois is having an even harder time with her identity. Though being a wife and a mother is something she knows she’s supposed to be happy about &#8212 she isn’t. She resents the child inside her for ruining her chances of becoming a surgeon, and subconsciously wants to damage it. She drinks and smokes and spends much of her time in bed, depressed, worrying her friends and her husband.

The mini-series is the creation of Makgano Mamabolo and Lodi Matsetela, and the production values are quite good, though not on par with an HBO or Showtime miniseries.

Makgano Mamabolo and Lodi Matsetela

The acting and authenticity more than make up for the lack of gloss, however, with excellent performances from each main cast member. As Beth and Lois’ emotional journeys are far more tumultuous than the rest, Gcilitshana and Tylbooi have the hardest material &#8212 and the most affecting scenes.

For a film that’s pitched as an African version of everyone’s favorite Sarah Jessica Parker series, it’s a fair deal heavier, and far less focused on the men in the main characters’ lives. In fact, the only truly Sex in the City element that pops up is Ledwaba’s turn as the swanky, man-hungry Inno, who is clearly channeling Samantha.

The music is absolutely stellar, with eclectic selections from hip-hop, jazz and traditional folk songs underscoring much of the action, and an excellent piano theme that winds in and out of the various scenes. There’s even a fantastic interlude when the friends, slightly tipsy on wine, start singing old-school Salt n’ Pepa hits.

The only downside to Society is that it ends rather abruptly, just as we get the feeling that the women are really starting to reconnect.

This is also heartening &#8212 as the series has the potential to be picked back up, though nothing has been confirmed. Certainly, one hopes that the story will be continued, and that audiences around the world will be able to appreciate one of the deepest, most nuanced, and most entertaining depictions of life in modern South Africa.

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