Film Review: Learning To Fly Or Failing To Take Off?

November 28, 2014



Spud 3: Learning To Fly / Directed by John Barker / PG13


John Milton, aka Spud, returns to school as a senior in 1992, when South Africa is shrugging itself into a new identity and he – as a now 16-year-old boy-man – must do the same.

This third instalment underlines that the films now attained the same sort of cult status enjoyed by John van de Ruit’s books, on which the franchise is based. The teenaged cast, easily recognisable after three outings, are now treated – by young girls, at any rate – with the adulation usually reserved for soap stars or at least extremely cute puppies, packing out cinema foyers and any other venue at which Troye Sivan (who plays Spud) and his cohorts appear.

But like anything with strong niche appeal, there are those on the inside who are wholeheartedly committed to their cause and those on the fringes or further out who have no idea whatsoever what all the fuss was about.

Spud 3: Learning To Fly suffers to some degree from the law of diminishing returns. Novelty value is low, both in terms of the local literary phenomenon made visually alive idea and as regards the thrill of having John Cleese popping up in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands on a regular basis. The goofy adolescent humour that gave the first two films a measure of charm is largely replaced by an awkward attempt at making some less than hilarious themes – selfishness; marriage difficulties; bullying; manipulation; heartbreak – both accessible to a young audience and reasonably entertaining.

It doesn’t really work. Caspar Lee, in his Spud debut as Malawian import Garlic, provides some of the few diverting moments. He, like Sivan, is a bit of a YouTube wunderkind, with 3,4 million followers, and his relatively higher level of comfort in front of the camera is immediately evident.

Aaron McIlroy, as Spud’s father, is given more screen time – a good thing, though the pathos of his situation barely tempers the overblown farce that is his life. Cleese, on the other hand, is given far less, and the film feels emptier for it. His The Guv has an under-developed romantic subplot to himself and has forged an even more uncomfortably intimate relationship with his young protégé, both potentially interesting avenues that are never fully investigated.

Spud’s continuing search for love is as clumsy as ever, and his making the same mistakes, often with the same people as he did in earlier screen chapters, is now just tiresome.

Director John Barker, who’s taken over from Donovan Marsh, was given trickier, less naïve material to work with than his predecessor, but what he’s signed off on is more an uncertain mix of adult themes and superficial school-age silliness than it is an exploration of the bittersweet trials of young adulthood.

Early indications are that the film will be a hit – it has the momentum of the large collective fanbase of the books and the earlier movies to rely on, and at the time of writing, had it rated at 9.4 out of 10 (to put that into context, Citizen Kane has an 8.4 rating on the same website). And the screaming girls from the foyer will go and see it four and five times each, so the numbers won’t lie.

But like the pimples and hormonal struggles its protagonists have to struggle with, this story of a kid who isn’t quite sure of who he is and where he’s going may be beginning to outstay its welcome.