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Spud
Genre Comedy
Year: 2010
 
Review:

John Van De Ruit's character, John Spud Milton has become the South African equivalent of Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole. Both characters are at that age when puberty is starting to kick in, physical changes are bound to create some form of clumsy embarrassment and life is only really beginning. These are the formative years and yet we somehow get a burst of nostalgia by suffering their crisis of identity, their painful pubescent years and seem to "get" where they're coming from... no wonder their experiences are so enchanting, memorable and uplifting.

John Van De Ruit's Spud series has captivated the South African market much like Adrian Mole did in the '90s for kids and even for some adults. While one functions like a memoir and the other a diary, it's the day-to-day growing pains that make the journey so unique - yet somehow they manage to tap into the vulnerability of humanity and the proverbial triumph over adversity. Of course, they're a great read... who doesn't want the little guy to succeed and who hasn't felt like a Spud in one situation or another.

So Spud has entrenched itself as a firm favourite for ex-boarders, fascinated school boys living a very similar life to John Milton and curious outsiders. The book has made the leap from the pages of Van De Ruit's bestseller to the celluloid and for the most part, it's been a complete success. Spud is faithful to the book, giving an account of 1990s South Africa with the release of Nelson Mandela and John "Spud" Milton's first year at Michaelhouse, an elite private boarding school for boys in Durban North.

The casting of the film's principal co-stars, young Troye Sivan and John Cleese raised the bar to an international standard. Cleese's involvement will draw significant international interest given it's been some years since his last live-action performance, while Sivan takes his first lead in a title role. Sivan (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is the star and projects intelligence, humility, likability and a brimming talent reminiscent of Freddie Highmore. Both actors share a similar on screen presence and have an enchanting quality about their innocence.

John Cleese registers a passionate performance as "the Guv", really embracing the character as if related somehow. He demonstrates his experience and knack for comedy, while wringing out the drama from his tragic character - every alcoholic tear drop. Cleese is the backbone and dramatic credibility to Spud, but allows Troye Sivan the space to shine. His English teacher character will draw parallels with Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society... with direct references to Oliver. Cleese adds some fighting spirit and fatherly warmth to Spud with a special focus on their friendship.

Other noteworthy performances are delivered by the somewhat restrained Aaron McIlroy as Spud's madcap father, Jason Cope as the Crazy 8's housemaster nicknamed "Sparerib" and Jamie Royal as young "Gecko". The ensemble is padded with other South African actors like Jeremy Crutchley, Julie Summers and Graham Weir, who don't really have enough screen time in Spud. While up-and-coming starlet Tanit Phoneix headlines the eye candy division as the bodacious Eve with support from Genna Blair as "Mermaid", Charlbi Dean Kriek as femme fatale Amanda and Alex McGregor as Christine. 

The shenanigans have been treated in a comedy style with a serious afterthought. While night swimming and howling from windows make for a Peter Pan version of boarding school, aspects of initiation and earning respect the hard way also filter through. Shoe polish scrubs and toilet dunking on your birthday doesn't exactly make the best advert for mothers thinking of sending their kids to boarding schools. The inclusion demonstrates the strife staying true to the story, which seems to occur at most boarding schools in one form or another. The Lord of the Flies group mentality kicks in and there's a strange rite of passage to becoming one of the boys, one of the men.

Speaking from experience, the good times are obviously most memorable, which is probably why someone would even choose to recount their boarding school experience as a comedy in Spud's case. The not-so-good times do however build character, mental resilience, independence and stamina - things that are more difficult to earn at home. Boarding school makes lifelong friends... brothers even.

Donovan Marsh directs Spud with an admiration for films like Dead Poet's Society, however there's a more theatrical component to Spud with the overlay of Charles Dickens's Oliver, making it a play-within-a-film much like Dead Poet's Society with a focus on the teacher-student relationship. While Spud goes for comedy over drama, it's the situational comedy that makes this school boy adventure funny more than any witty dialogue. John Cleese knocks a few classic lines out of the park, but the tone is high-spirited fun more than traditional comedy.

The laughs are intermittent and are slowly replaced by some rather touching moments, which get quite serious. Spud is hugely entertaining and delivers on value time and time again with top-notch lead performances and a solid team effort from the supporting cast. The film almost warrants some reverse engineering to turn the film into a stage play. The theatrical quality of the film demands it and it could easily mirror the success story of a film like The History Boys. Just like it's title character, Spud the movie, could rise to the challenge once all its naysayers are silenced and an adoring South African public will be waiting with open arms to welcome the film and future sequels home for the holidays.

The bottom line: Entertaining.

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8.39/10 ( 23 Votes )
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