Give me fame, fortune and glory!

ON my path to the world: Ntombi (Hlengiwe Ngubane). Photograph courtesy Prime Video

WHAT IS A teen flick? Dealing with issues and dreams too big to fit a framework suitable for pre-adolescents, it should contain the values that feel relevant to youth, but not flow too deep or wide to be irresponsible, and yet retain a relevance that’s neither prissy nor uncool. To all intents and purposes, Michael Kolbé’s film Promises, featuring Hlengiwe Ngubane, ticks all of these boxes, but it lacks the kind of cohesion that has made teen works of the ilk of Rob Reiner’s (1986) Stand by Me, or Alan Parker’s 1980 film Fame, timeless classics.

Like any kind of story told, the work itself should lead you, the viewer, into its depths, trip you up and cast you along with the idiosyncrasies of its own twists and folds. It should complicate your awareness of its trajectory in a way that catches your values by their proverbial throats, but allows you to see the error of your beliefs as the denouement comes into its own. By the same token, it’s a brilliant opportunity for a platform to allow young performers find their professional wings – as the careers of then youngsters of the ilk of the cast of Paul Gleason’s 1985 film The Breakfast Club attest to.

Ntombi, the central character of Promises has a smile that lights the camera and a body of hair that should have enjoyed its own credits, it is so wonderful on the heart and the set. She is a student at a performing arts college somewhere in Cape Town, but she also lives in dire poverty – in an informal settlement, with the complexities of a totally absent father, an oft absent mother and a younger sister. It’s a domestic environment where money is too tight to mention, but one in which she’s held with heart in the bosom of her direct community, and there is give and take between other people’s parents and herself that gives Ntombi credibility.

The film drives directly into the heart of the matter and Ntombi’s dreams of a life charmed by the idea of fame, fortune and footlights, which she hopes to achieve, possibly in that order. But the story is overdosed with lots of red herrings that feel both undeveloped and obvious simultaneously. We get smatterings of her material challenges and her need to hide them from the rich bitches in her class, as we get an understanding of how easily she’s set afire (and adrift) by dreams of love and success. We don’t really get to appreciate how much better than everyone else Ntombi is, even though her friends egg her on with this trope. There’s a use of WhatsApp lingo on screen which informs with a quick-fire rapidity, of communicating youngsters, allowing subtexts to flow without overworking the text or the script.

While the script is largely fairly wooden and predictable, the story similarly feels both too easy and blurry. Ntombi falls for a talented rapper, Mzi who has a bit of a dodgy side life. She’s caught up totally in the idea of becoming “Mrs Mzi”, in a way that taints her as a bouncy and keen, if not endearingly naïve teen rather than one who is studying a field of her passion in a post matric situation.

One thing leads to another, and against the better judgement of her close friends, Ntombi finds herself privy to bad crimes being perpetrated by guys who are closer to the fabric of her community than she’d like. And she slips into a vortex of dangerous men, rather rapidly. What we’re getting here is a Ntombi who hasn’t the maturity in a social context that she has on the street and this flaws her credibility.

It’s also a pity that Ntombi’s group of friends at school and her kasi buddies remain two-dimensional in this film. There’s a lovely cameo by Nomazotsho Xamlashe as the gogo of Ntombi’s friend, one of the only adults who sees Ntombi for who she is, and some harsh and almost poetic lights cast on township edginess, but this film lacks the eye of a Tebogo Mahlatsi or an Angus Gibson – the makers of TV series Yizo Yizo in the late 1990s – in its acuity, viscerality and poetry.

Promises yields a very basic cautionary tale that presents the three-headed demon of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll from the proverbial bag of badness. It doesn’t showcase performance talent in the kind of way that you may wish it to, and it remains a feel-good bit of forgettable fluff.

Promises is directed by Michael Kolbé. Written by Byron Davis based on a story by Tom Raynor, it is performed by Thando Baliso, Khethile Chili, Shan-Lee Cilliers, Antoinette de Villiers, Alfreda Fourie, Xolisa Goba, Cara Hilpert, Athi Jamjam, Dikeledi Lumbe, Wendy Madikwa, Onke Matolana, Tyra Lee Mattheyse, Mansonwabe Mendu, Khanya Motjuwadi, Naledi Motjuwadi, Portia Motjuwadi, Viwe Mquikela, Nontandazo Msweli, Caroline Muleua, Michael Mxobo, Hlengiwe Ngubane, Sipho Samuel Nguzo, Chumani Nkwezani, Buhle Patu, Micaela Rodrigues, Muano Sithagu, Siphokazi Misha Solanga, Siyamthanda Veliti, Nomazotsho Xamlashe and Daluxolo Xusha. Produced by Aimee Dherman, it features cinematography by Tumi Motlhokoa. It released on Prime Video on 9 September 2022.

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