They’re no longer inking deals for Miramax, but it’s as if Bobby and Harvey Weinstein never abandoned the company they created 10-plus years ago given how compulsorily their former agents continue to do their middlebrow handiwork. The first film purchased by the post-Weinstein cabal, Tsotsi lobs a huge chunk of sunburnt cheese at the Fernando Meirelles Fan Club, taking advantage of our pleased distance from the shantytowns of South Africa. This reductive morality tale is predicated on an O. Henry conceit director Gavin Hood spreads out impossibly thin and dresses with a tragically erratic aesthetic at once flashy and nondescript; there’s no doubt Hood wants to seriously consider his milieu, but he does so in the simplest terms possible.
Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), a 19-year-old thug living in the slums of Johannesburg, steals a car one day from a rich woman only to discover he’s unknowingly kidnapped her baby, who starts wailing from the backseat some distance from the scene of the crime. Rather than leave the cute little bugger on the side of the road, Tsotsi stuffs him inside a paper bag, takes him back to his tin hut, and slides him under his bed—the first of many horrifying visions Hood uses to cheaply toy with his bourgeois audience’s sympathies. Stay tuned as Tsotsi fashions a diaper out of newspaper! Watch as Tsotsi fails to clean leftover condensed milk from the baby’s face, thus allowing for an army of ants to happily march into the child’s makeshift crib!
Chweneyagae, who picks one angry expression and sticks with it for most of the film, conspires with Hood to promote the absurd notion that Tsotsi is representative of every unthinking, stone-faced ruffian living in South Africa—innocent children trapped inside angry adult bodies. Everything Totsi can do wrong, he does, like forcing a woman at gunpoint to give up her breast milk. (Being a thug, apparently, means never having to say please.) He even eyes a can of baby formula like a caveman who’s discovered fire. These scenes are crucial if you wish to understand the film’s arrogance, which seems to assume that being a thug is really no different than being a mental handicap. Or maybe this condescension simply exists to permit the story’s lame objective: to illustrate how bringing-up-baby histrionics can melt the savage beast.
Not surprising for a film that trades in child’s-lit insight and character arching, Tsotsi sheepishly keeps its social realism at arm’s length. Just as Hood fails to seriously and vibrantly bring South Africa’s rich-poor divide to life, he tritely and unimaginatively uses Africa’s AIDS crisis to validate the chaos of Tsotsi’s life, as if the young man’s lack of money and parents wasn’t suitable enough subtext to wear on our tear ducts. “We are all affected by HIV and AIDS” read posters strewn across town. Some will confuse this lip service, like the film’s postcard-pretty depictions of homelessness, for nuance; Hood acknowledges the disease that killed Tsotsi’s mother as reticently as South Africa continues to address HIV/AIDS prevention. If Africa’s silence encourages the very ignorance that helps to spread the disease, Hood’s equally hands-off acknowledgement encourages lazy storytelling.