“I racialize everything because I’m South African, it’s my culture,” university lecturer Max Matsane (Kagiso Lediga) tells his long-term partner, Sam (Pearl Thusi), before chastising her for giving twenty rand to a panhandler. Therein lies the challenge of Netflix’s Catching Feelings, navigating as it does issues of racism, classism and gender in contemporary South Africa. Well, that and sleeping with other people’s wives.
Max and Sam’s relationship is stable but turning a little stale when acclaimed white South African author, Heiner (Andrew Bruckner), who had fled the country during apartheid, returns to Max’s university on a book tour. Although Max, himself a writer, is frustrated by all the praise Heiner is receiving from his own creative community, he soon gets drawn into Heiner’s circles of partying and excess, leading Max and Sam to reconsider married life.
Written and directed by, as well as starring, stand-up comedian Kagiso Lediga, the characters in Catching Feelings frequently make questionable choices and are almost perpetually drunk as a result of said choices. However, they are also well-drawn and entertaining, making for an engrossing watch.
Catching Feelings is character driven, both in terms of its narrative and its comedy, much of which comes from slightly off-kilter lines delivered very well by the actors: “You get to have regular intercourse with a hot woman,” Max’s friend (Akin Omotso) accuses him at one point. Lediga’s stand-up background is evident from his character’s regular observational griping, which remains relatable throughout. Meanwhile, Pearl Thusi does great work. In many ways, she fills the role of the straight (wo)man for much of the running time.
Lediga both as a writer and performer navigates the antagonism between Max and Heiner very well. While there are elements of intellectual rivalry and racial tension, neither define their relationship. This enables them to slide into an uneasy symbiotic bond. In this way, Catching Feelings addresses the interconnected issues of racism, classism and creativity in South Africa up close. Yet it remains aware of the privileges at play in such a narrative. As Max reminds Heiner in one of the film’s more self-reflexive moments – which takes place in an upmarket Johannesburg bar – “This is not a reflection of reality. This is a very tiny speck of a very, very tiny speck of reality. In real life, black people are dirt-poor and white people run everything.” After all, Max can afford to befriend a racist like Heiner, something not every black South African could.
While the film shows little nudity, sex (and the having of) is one of its main hang-ups. As a result this may not be the film to pick for a family get-together. Yet, there is little to offend. The camera is nearly almost moving, if almost imperceptibly at times, and close-ups of the characters are just a little too close for comfort. The latter makes sense in a film where its characters are prone to oversharing. Offbeat and often perceptive, Catching Feelings is a compelling comedy of drunken racial politics.