A Boy Called Twist from South African director Tim Greene provides a South African twist – pardon the pun – on the classic Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. The movie effortlessly takes the original story’s horroresque orphan story and brings it into the modern times. After all, it feels like there’s plenty of child exploitation to be found even now, if only one were to look. As well as capturing the darkness of the original story, A Boy Called Twist also manages to capture the vitality of the original piece; the open feel of the story and the bright vibrancy that contrasts with some of the more darker moments. The acting is good, especially considering the lack of professional child actors, but perhaps this is one best suited for the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime.
A Boy Called Twist follows the original Dickens story quite well, with a few changes made. The AIDs epidemic of Africa is a crucial part to the story, lending some poignancy to the orphans. At one point, the woman running the orphanage where Twist is housed – Teri Norton – tells the staff at the orphanage to not bother showing any affection towards the children as they are all going to die sooner or later anyway.
That the children are then sold into virtual slavery as fieldworkers does little to ensure that they will survive for much longer. That the children aren’t likely to live very long also increases their value – especially that of young Twist – to the undertaker (John Malherbe) whom Twist is sold to.
Twist manages to escape from his fate, fleeing to Cape Town. Things don’t look too good for the young boy though, as he has very little in the way of food or money. He is saved from his dire situation by Dodger (Tertius Swanepoel), Bill Sykes (Bart Fouche), and Nancy (Kim Englebrecht). The group of children take Twist to meet Fagin (Leslie Fong) where the Rastafarian thiefmaster recruits the boy to be part of his merry band of pickpockets.
This is where one of the great elements of the movie comes to light. All of the children in Fagin’s gang are portrayed by actual street kids from Cape Town. Greene is able to capture their vulnerability, rhythms, and solidarity because he was dealing with the kind of kids who would actually be in a gang like this. Children who are forced into becoming pickpockets to survive and get an occasional high from alcohol or glue. Everything feels real because, in a sense, it is.
Instead of showing how Twist was corrupted by Dodger and Fagin, Greene focuses on how Twist finally got a taste of freedom and the shared happiness and pleasure the gang indulges in.
Something else that sets Boy Called Twist apart from the original story is the setting. Rather than the dark and claustrophobic London alleyways, we are treated to the spacious topography of South Africa.
A Boy Called Twist is worth checking out if you’re a fan of the original story or are curious about what it might look like with a different coat of paint. Greene brings Twist to the modern age but still manages to capture everything that made the original great by telling a story that is just as likely to happen in modern South Africa as it was to happen in Victorian London. Be sure to check it out for yourself if you get the chance.