The lovely South African film “Otelo Burning” is a coming-of-age story with the grand sweep of history as its background, and its director, Sara Blecher, seems to know instinctively that the noisy excesses that sometimes creep into this genre have no place in her tale.
It begins in 1988, a little more than a year before Nelson Mandela is to be released from prison, and two black 16-year-olds, Otelo (Jafta Mamabolo) and New Year (Thomas Gumede), are doing what teenagers do: chafing at the limited life available to them in the coastal township of Lamontville. When another young man, Mandla (Sihle Xaba), introduces them to surfing, they find a release from drudgery, and Ms. Blecher finds a symbol for freedom (which the film sometimes underscores more bluntly than necessary).
There is blossoming love between Otelo and New Year’s sister, Dezi (Nolwazi Shange), but there are also rumblings in the outside world as rival factions in the great events that are transforming the country assert their power. The idyllic and the angry collide with deadly consequences. Ms. Blecher draws fine performances out of the young actors and, to her credit, sugarcoats nothing. – Neil Genzlinger