Master Harold... and the Boys is an adaptation of Athol Fugard's acclaimed stage play about a young boy wrestling with his convictions when it comes to his father and his caretaker in 1950s South Africa. The era, known for its discriminatory racist government policies, separated South Africans and created barriers preventing black South Africans from enjoying equality and the same level of privileges as their white counterparts. This tense atmosphere fuels the drama of Master Harold... and the Boys as a white teenage schoolboy (Highmore) shares his frustrations with a black 30-something waiter (Rhames).
Fugard's play contrasts Hally's complicated relationship with his father with that of Sam, his caretaker. Ironically, it's all black and white as Hally shows a superficial respect for his alcoholic, crippled old man - paying him his dues when he doesn't actually think that he deserves them. Sam receives more sincerity and honesty, but their father-son bond is stunted by Hally's disrespect, a product of his jilted generation and Sam's lack of citizenship. Master Harold... and the Boys is about "collisions" as races, roles and relationships are tested to breaking point.
The stage play based in the confines of a tea room uses flashbacks to relay shared memories between Hally and his two fathers. This opens the environment up, allowing TV director Lonny Price, a chance to compose the South African climate with public segregation signs showing a clear divide. The play also highlights a series of conflicts, starting with inequalities in South Africa and drawing them out in the drama between co-leads Freddie Highmore and Ving Rhames, with South Africa's Patrick Mofokeng as a supporting actor.
The decision to incorporate two international film stars has bolstered the credibility of the production, after Matthew Broderick starred opposite John Kani in the TV adaptation of the play in 1985. Freddie Highmore is a talented young actor, whose performances show consistency and an endearing quality that makes him likable. He would have been the obvious choice for Spud, yet his character seems bipolar in Master Harold... and the Boys snapping at any hint of embarrassment. It's a pivotal role, one that he handles well, delivering most of his lines with a good take on the difficult accent.
Ving Rhames, known for roles in Pulp Fiction and the Mission: Impossible series, steps into a more dramatic role in this important little film. It's good to see Rhames taking a co-lead role in a movie that delves into character over action. His role as Sam grows on you. At first, his South African accent is distracting - making him sound more like a plantation slave in the Americas than a South African. His thick set build and mannerisms just seem foreign next to an actor like Patrick Mofokeng. Yet, once the dust settles, Rhames wins our hearts over.
You can't help but feel that two South African actors would have made the film feel more authentic. The name actors help give the film a commercial edge and deliver on the heart of the performances, but something's lost in the translation to film. Another distraction is the inconsistent TV movie feel, relying on close-ups and pinning flashbacks and dream sequences on to give more space to the drama. This alleviates the tedious tea room backdrop and unfortunately, the pressure of the taut scenario.
The TV feel is emphasised by hints of melodrama with regular close-ups and the drama hasn't translated well to film with a contrived feel and too much dialogue. The conflicts, contrasts and characters create enough palpable tension to keep Master Harold... and the Boys taut, otherwise there's not too much to write home about...
Add a fairly short run time at 82 minutes and you've got a film that starts slowly and then powers home in the last quarter. The foreign actors, inconsistent TV quality, dabs of melodrama and sluggish pacing stifle the production. This is despite genuine heartfelt performances and authentic mis-en-scene, underwritten by a powerful tale of racial and familial strife. Master Harold... and the Boys is a story about collisions, yet the irony is that there seem to be too many conflicting factors at play - that function as both strengths and weaknesses - dampening the overall impact.
The bottom line: Disappointing