TIFF Next Wave Review: 'High Fantasy'

High Fantasy
(South Africa/Luxembourg, 71 min.)
Dir. Jenna Bass
Starring: Qondiswa James, Nala Khumalo, Francesca Varrie Michel, Liza Scholtz
Qondiswa James, Nala Khumalo, Francesca Varrie Michel, Liza Scholtz
Courtesy of TIFF
The concept of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is getting a bit worn in the heel. Why not try something bigger, like wearing someone else’s pants, (clean) undies, or skin?  

Jenna Bass toys with the concept of diverse perspectives and experiences in the speculative comedy High Fantasy. This high concept film with a small scale engages young audiences with provocative questions of race, gender, identity, and privilege as a quartet of friends goes camping in rural South Africa. The friends magically swap bodies when they wake after smoking some incredibly potent drugs. Reefer madness, this is not—the kids experience an eye-opening cultural awakening.

Each friend embodies a different spectrum from South Africa’s identity as the “Rainbow Nation.” Thami (Nala Khumalo) and Tatiana (Liza Scholtz) are young women of colour Lexi (Francesca Varrie Michel) is white and, from the sounds of it, privileged.  Xoli (Qondiswa James) is the lone male of the group and he swaggers around the sand, wagging his hips provocatively and teasing the girls about what “bitches” want. The quartet is a simmering pot of race relations that Bass and the young adventurous actors stir feverishly to draw the bitter divides that run as deep as friendship.

The film throws in a found footage aspect to highlight the importance of self-representation as Bass gives the kids some iPhones with which they shoot much of the footage. High Fantasy switches aspect ratios and visual fields as it alternates between the limited focuses of selfie culture and the handsome wide shots of the evocative landscape that provide an eerie backdrop for this study of cultural identity. (In between are some interrogation scenes with a police officer that wear thin quickly.)

High Fantasy lets the kids freak out when the swap skins, but the conversation quickly segues into one of racial difference and gender roles. It’s all an exercise of “telling” versus “showing” as this talky film doesn’t skirt around issues. It instead stomps on them, kicks up dust, and flings them into the open. What the film loses in subtlety, it gains in accessibility as it encourages younger audiences to have a conversation about race, gender, empathy, and tolerance. Self-conscious or not, it’s straight up the alley of the festival’s effort to make audiences stay woke. Keep those eyes open: it’s refreshing to see a film ask provocative questions to young audiences through big ideas rather than special effects.

High Fantasy screens at TIFF’s Next Wave Festival on Sunday, Feb. 18.