Agu (Attah), the protagonist and sometimes narrator of Beasts of No Nation is just coming of age when a civil war reaches his village in West Africa, signifying that his carefree childhood days are over, unbeknownst to him. In a wrenching parting his mother and younger siblings are sent to a place of safety, and in the shooting melee that follows, Agu loses his father and brother. He runs into the bush for hours then is set upon by a group of guerilla fighters. Hoping desperately to belong to a “family” again, he goes through the initiation rites and becomes a fighter under the watchful eye of the Commandant (Elba) who repeatedly tests his bravery and loyalty, and a father-son relationship soon evolves.
Talented writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre, True Detective) has taken the story from a novel written by Uzodinma Iweala, a prize-winning young American writer. The creative artistry simply oozes out of these works, including Fukunaga’s stunning cinematography. Their depiction of a young boy’s experience of being yanked out of his intact Christian family and thrown into a seemingly endless testosterone infused life-threatening physical and mentally taxing struggle completely drains him after so many battles and towards the end a major turn of events for the troop. He comes to the conclusion that “The only way not to be fighting any more is to be dying.”
A strong point of the film is its representation of childhood as fanciful and imaginative (e.g., Agu and friends taking the frame off his father’s television, demonstrating its 3D effect by putting their own antics behind the empty space for the viewer in front, and hawking it as “imaginative TV.”) sincere, and loving; and how, along with thoughtful parental influence, real life experiences mold the adult’s character. The picture is so vivid, one can almost “see” the psychological scars left upon this child, who nevertheless appears to be quite capable of processing it and figuring it all out. Especially moving is the last scene with children playing happily and boisterously in the ocean, a coda that repeats one of the first scenes in an earlier place and time.
Although he is apparently new to the acting scene, Abraham Attah carries his role like a pro with naturalness and convincing emotional expression. Two of the most revealing are his turmoil when confronted with brutally killing someone the first time and at the end when he is ruminating on his life so far and wondering what his future will be.
This is probably one of Idris Elba’s meatiest roles in that he is such a central figure and it allows his strengths full rein. He is well regarded as an actor, particularly as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and as Luther in the TV series, and he is likely to be nominated for awards in this performance. The Commandant leads his troop in Hitler-like fashion, demanding a worshipful allegiance to him and dispensing favors selectively. The only time he is shown to be the least bit vulnerable is in his narcissistic feelings toward Agu.
Beasts of No Nation has already been nominated for awards at the London and Venice Film Festivals, and there will probably be more coming up. Fukunaga, Attah, and Elba would all be deserving of consideration.
Inspiring film about childhood heroism with stunning cinematography.
Grade: A By Donna R. Copeland