Promotional poster for the film Thina Sobabili. Courtesy Toronto Black Film Festival.

A sense of darkness hangs over Thina Sobabili: The Two of Us. The film follows the story of two siblings, Thulani (Emmanuel Nkosinathi Gweva) and Zanele (Busisiwe Mtshali) as familial tragedy unfolds against the vivid backdrop of Alexandra, South Africa. Although the dialogue of the film is spoken in Zulu, the film’s themes are universal.

It’s Zanele’s sense of alienation from her hometown that sets the events of the film in motion. Though the siblings only have each other to rely on, Zanele feels marginalized by her overprotective older brother. She seeks the realization of her hopes and dreams of escaping the township, and attempts to find this validation in an older, dangerous man.

The film’s dialogue is at its best when showing the banter between friends, which comes across effortlessly. Interestingly, there is also some English slang mixed into the script, which can feel forced. In particular, conversations between Zanele and her friend Tumi will seem incredibly familiar to viewers, as the two do each other’s makeup and discuss fashion trends. “This is Beyoncé’s style,” Tumi says while trying to convince Zanele to wear a certain dress.

Tumi is also Zanele’s accomplice; she’s the partner in crime of whom Thulani disapproves, due to her relationships with older men. “She’s a whore,” he says, not understanding that his judgement is only pushing his sister further and further away. Of course, as Zanele watches Tumi reap the benefits of these connections, she decides to seek them out for herself.

On the whole, the ensemble delivers incredibly natural performances. This is aided by the minimalist approach to cinematography, which lends the film a documentary feel. Mtshalis delivers an especially beautiful and heartbreaking performance, moving seamlessly between teenage angst and deep longing and sorrow. It’s difficult not to empathize with Zanele’s dreams of leaving a place where “everyone’s the same,” but the viewer cannot help but feel a sense of profound discomfort while watching her go about escaping in all the wrong ways.

Viewers may also be surprised by the film’s capacity to shock. A central theme running throughout is that things are not always what they seem like. As characters find themselves under pressure, or in new environments, layers of their personalities are peeled away, revealing additional depth to each one. Richard Lukunku, who plays Skhalo, the older man Zanele develops a relationship with, is excellent as well. Enticing yet menacing, Lukunku captures the duality to Skhalo’s character with ease.

The movie is unsparing in its depiction of life’s daily tragedies, and of the ways we can hurt those we love the most. While Thulani wants only the best for his sister, he is damaged, and at times fails to be her protector. These exchanges between the two siblings showcase a particular magnetism. Though some times brutal, it’s hard to look away, and the simple power of the duo’s connection is remarkable.

The Two of Us is a clear-eyed examination of how guilt and pride affect our relationships, joyful and devastating in equal measure.

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