The story of the child soldier is not one that the movies have been clamoring to tell. What could be gleaned from giving this insidious reality a narrative platform? The hardening of a young soul in this context is not something that can or should be observed casually, after all, and for many it's easier not to look at all.
That's why Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Beasts of No Nation" is such a special creation. It evokes the grim misery of war and the plight of these boys while making the experience of watching it almost poetic. It's not exploitative. It's not sentimental. It doesn't cheekily dare you to look (or look away). It is grounded horror shown artfully and purposefully.
Based on Uzodinma Iweala's novel of the same name, the film follows a boy, Agu (brilliant newcomer Abraham Attah), from a peaceful and youthfully mischievous life with his family in a West African village deep into his involvement with a group of militant rebels led by the mad, charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba).
In the village, Agu and his friends roam and play and hustle soldiers and townspeople. They're trying to sell a television frame without the screen. When the adults furrow their brows, Agu and the boys snap into performance mode, enacting film moments (Kung Fu! 3-D!) in the tiny frame. At home, Agu's older brother torments him, and Agu in turn torments his out-of-it grandfather. It's all quite ordinary — boys being boys and whatnot.
The immediate appeal of this introduction goes far in making the audience care when everything is stripped away so violently and suddenly. In a harrowing flash, Agu is orphaned, alone and scared when he comes across the rebels, whose colorful, handmade uniforms and decorated hats make them look like a radical sect of Peter Pan's Lost Boys. The Commandant takes to Agu and enlists him in his army.
Then they train, they fight, and Agu is reborn as ruthless soldier. But the specifics of the story are almost beside the point. Fukunaga, who wrote, directed and shot the movie, extracts emotion with his camera and Dan Romer's ("Beasts of the Southern Wild") powerful score more than the plot.
Fukunaga, who gained widespread attention for directing the first season of HBO's "True Detective," creates subtle milieus that linger in your mind long after the credits have rolled: A village burning in the distant night; a child in a pith helmet trudging coolly through a rusty orange trench, cigarette in hand; a hallucinatory assault that renders the surroundings pink and circuslike.
The beauty of Fukunaga's shots, however, are never just for beauty's sake. They lure you into the story and make you watch even as things get bleaker.
There are few more rousing scenes than when the Commandant rallies his soldiers to advance through a village and take a bridge. They chant and get riled up as though they're about to play a sport, before they walk, slowly, confidently and led by an unarmed Elba, and begin mowing down every civilian and soldier in sight.
The camerawork might be the flashiest accomplishment, but the performances also give the story power. Attah deserves much credit for his perfectly attuned portrayal of this boy's transformation, aided by an introspective voiceover narration that still sounds like a child's thoughts. The camera rarely leaves his viewpoint, and you wouldn't want it to. Elba, meanwhile, disappears into the Commandant whose evil is inextricably linked with his undeniable magnetism.
"Beasts of No Nation" is certainly a worthy debut for Netflix Original Films. The platform democratizes access to a great picture that might have only been available to the arthouse crowd a few years ago. Now, you just have to choose when and where.
On a big screen, Fukunaga's lyrical filmmaking is transfixing, but there is freedom in knowing that this necessary, demanding movie exists on your television. It is not an easy experience, but it's worth it. "Beasts of No Nation" is there and ready when you are.
"Beasts of No Nation," a Netflix/Bleecker Street Media release, is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America but contains scenes of graphic violence. Running time: 133 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
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