A Boy Called Twist is the story of a street-kid's search for love and a home, based on Charles Dickens' classic Oliver Twist. After growing up neglected in a rural orphanage, the young Twist is sold into indentured slavery on a farm. Unable to bear life on the farm, Twist escapes to the unpredictable freedom of Cape Town, where he falls in with Fagin's gang of street urchins. His luck keeps changing - sometimes for the better but often for the worse as he's used and abused by most adults - even those that appear to love him. Will Oliver find someone he can trust, and who trusts him in return? And can he escape the crime, drugs and desperation of the life in which he's trapped?
Yet another film version of Oliver Twist, except with a street kid as the main character and set in Cape Town? That's quite something to take on, given that there are at least six other feature film versions of the story, and that everyone knows how it ends. The most recent of these versions, a close adaptation by acclaimed director Roman Polanski, has completely bombed critically and in theatres.
But when you see A Boy Called Twist, you'll see how well they've pulled it off. "They" being director Tim Greene, some of South Africa's finest actors, and a strong production team who (underpaid by international standards) were undoubtedly doing their work largely for love.
A grainy but not overly arty finish, a varied but not overly touristy choice of locations and a gradual but effective acceleration of both the plot and the pace make this movie a completely professional product that's unlikely to earn condescending "not bad for a South African production" type praise. In fact, comparing it to most South African movies is a mistake. Its violent content and the universality of its themes earn it the right to hold its own against films like Once Were Warriors (New Zealand, 1995) and City of God (Brazil, 2003).
This movie is a minor miracle. The Dickens plot is an inspired choice since it is completely relevant to modern day South African economics and social politics. The setting sensitively shows both Cape Town's great beauty, as well as the harsh world you can find ten minutes stroll from the pretty city centre. Whether ugly or beautiful, it's hard not to feel a swelling of pride at the sight of a South African city immortalised and interpreted through the camera, rather than a foreign one.
There are moments of great emotive power - a lucky ride on top of a truck, waking in a clean bed for once, being hugged by a kind woman, and so on. They're even stronger in their contrast to a world full of beatings, murders, hardship, selfishness, cynicism and cruelty. The positive moments seem to be providing Twist with just enough courage to keep going.
This is not a kids' movie, and though its main character is a child, the film says a lot more about the adults surrounding the boy than they do about him. It highlights the terrible results of selfishness and the results of denying that street kids are kids too - and human beings. It also shows the often tragic consequences of caring about other people.
However, thank goodness, A Boy Called Twist refuses to smugly wag a finger, make a sweeping moral judgement or idealise either the children or the adults. In this way, as well as on a few plot points, it avoids following the Charles Dickens model too closely.
Jarrid Geduld, discovered in a talent search at Cape schools, is a wonderfully muted and never cringingly "cute" Oliver. The rest of the cast, is strong and well directed, although there may be odd accents that sound like they come straight from the stage. That Englishy voice, too used to projecting, just doesn't sound natural on film. But the two most impressive performances come from the ruined couple - Bart Fouche playing the thief Bill Sykes, and Kim Engelbrecht as Nancy, the whore with the heart of gold. Kim in particular (one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen on screen) is fantastic, injecting much needed sex appeal, humour and moral likeability into the cast of mostly criminal characters.
Moodphase5ive and other top Cape Town musicians provide a soundtrack that stands in its own right, but is not intrusive because it speaks to directly to the other side of Cape Town. This is the side tourists never explore, the side many South Africans usually avoid dealing with. Who hasn't sat at a traffic light, staring straight ahead and trying not to hear the tapping on the car window?
Usually, the rolling of the credits signals the time to leave. But the credits are one of the more moving parts of A Boy Called Twist. The film was wholly South African funded, and the production kicked off in a very unusual way. Instead of going for big bucks from production houses, Tim Greene sold shares in the film to ordinary South Africans. About one thousand associate producers, who each took a leap of faith in SA film and bought R1000 or more worth of shares in the project, are listed in black and white in the final credits.
The people who made this film have had their faith rewarded with a movie that really does address a new audience, with an old story told freshly, fairly and entertainingly.
- Jean Barker
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