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Beyond the River
Genre Drama
 
Review:

South Africa needs Beyond the River, an uplifting sports drama based on a true story. At this point in time, our country's politics is still divided along racial lines, or rather that's what some parties would have you believe. We've come a long way since our rainbow nation was inaugurated in 1994 under the guidance of Nelson Mandela, whose levelheaded leadership navigated us through what could have been a much more radical transition. While some of the injustice around the old South Africa still haunts us today in terms of economic disparities, social incohesion and emotional wounds, we need to stop blaming in order to change our circumstances and fix our minds in getting to a place where we can all feel proud to wave our flag.

Beyond The River has got a clear agenda in terms of promoting common goals, interracial harmony and social upliftment, through its inspiring story about an unlikely Dusi canoe marathon pairing. Craig Freimond directed Material, a well-balanced and personal story for lead actor and doctor comedian Riaad Moosa. He's extended his talents into the sports genre, carefully nurturing another relationship-based story in the process. While competing in the Dusi canoe marathon is the end goal, this drama is more about the personal challenges experienced by two men on opposite sides of the fence.

While based on the true story of Siseko Ntondini and Piers Cruickshanks, the screenplay has been modified taking creative license to instill more dramatic tension. Duma, a poor young black man from Soweto is coaxed into taking up canoeing by a would-be mentor, Oupa, who challenges him to make something of his life. He meets Dusi veteran, Steve, a middle class older white man and teacher from the suburbs, who is also seeking some new direction and focus in his life.

Lemogang Tsipa and Grant Swanby take on the roles of Duma and Steve. Tsipa's experiential knowledge and lingual versatility enable him to live in Duma's world. From a difficult home life and struggling to break free from a bad influence, it's a pleasure to see Tsipa take Duma from zero to hero. Swanby's face is fascinating, carrying a heavy emotional burden and channeling all his determination and rage into being the best he can be no matter the cost. Together these underdogs make a curious duo, representing a cross-section of South African diversity. Their solid performances keep us rooting for them on an everyman level since we're kept at a arm's length through relative anonymity and a lack of charm and warmth.

Israel Makoe, Garth Breytenbach, Kgosi Mongake and Emily Child serve as a dependable supporting cast. Makoe takes on a tough yet refreshing mentor role with his usual fire and vigour getting Duma to make a lasting change as Oupa. Breytenbach adds some light-hearted banter and much-needed charm to proceedings as the ever-likable Dan. Mongake is beautifully tragic as Duma's best friend, Zama, and Child brings some melancholy to the drama playing Steve's estranged number one fan, Annie.

While the sports story is fairly predictable, it's the inspiring drama that makes Beyond the River worth your time. It's emotionally taut as we witness two men trying to dig themselves out of a rut through team work and perseverance. They're constantly breaking barriers, overcoming prejudices and inspiring others around them. It makes for compelling viewing to see the everyday battles playing out against the background of a much grander narrative for South Africa's future. The message is powerful and timely, especially for a sporting nation like South Africa, where working together, overcoming intercultural and economic barriers to establish unity is a familiar narrative.

Freimond ups the production value through aerial photography of the Dusi marathon rapids, Kwazulu-Natal's Valley of a Thousand Hills and energises the film with a nostalgic mix of classic South African music. It's stirring to see the guts and glory play out in a uniquely South African underdog sports drama. While it weaves a story of amazing contrasts and curious tensions, we struggle to break into the inner worlds of our co-leads, whose fuzzy standpoints make us empathise for them yet never truly befriend them. Watching from the sidelines, it's easy to cheer Beyond the River over the finish line as an inspiring albeit predictable crowd-pleaser, but it's always more fun being in the canoe.

The bottom line: Inspiring


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