South African masculinity does not come off at all well in this off-kilter drama, which pits an improbable number of gender, race and class tensions against each other but remains watchable throughout. Set in the striking, desolate landscape of the Karoo desert outside Cape Town, it’s a Thelma and Louise-like tale of two women on the run from predatory menfolk, although the cop pursuing them is another woman with her own man-related issues. Nobody’s hands are particularly clean.
It’s clear from the opening wedding scene between poor, beautiful Natalie (Nicole Fortuin), who is Black, and awkward white cop Bakkies that this is not a match made in heaven. Things don’t improve on their wedding night, which ends in a rape and a killing, with Natalie fleeing the scene on horseback in her blood-stained wedding dress. She seeks sanctuary with her wayward white “sister” Poppie (Izel Bezuidenhout), who is eight months pregnant but still up for some outlaw high-jinks. They are not actually sisters: Natalie’s mother worked as a nanny for Poppie’s, so their relationship is strained from the outset.
Drawn into the saga is Beauty (Faith Baloyi) a sharp, soap opera-bingeing Black cop with a stylish line in velour leisurewear. She smells a rat when her own partner Billy falsely confesses to the killing a day after he is released from a 15-year prison sentence. Inexplicably, Beauty still dotes on Billy – as does Poppie on the prospective father of her child, although he’s a heartless womaniser. Natalie takes a shine to Poppie’s man, too, which doesn’t help.
This is only half the story, which could be taken as a sobering survey of post-apartheid South Africa. The tangled web of unlikely incidents would be at home in a screwball comedy or perhaps one of Beauty’s soap operas, but writer-director Jenna Cato Bass plays it curiously straight. Harrowing moments of sexual violence, misogyny and racism are mixed in with far-fetched shootouts, horseback chases and even a dance scene. It’s an odd mix of tones that doesn’t always work but, like its protagonists, Flatland is not afraid to strike out and look for something new.