In the wake of the frankly ridiculous demands being levelled at the Academy regarding rescinding Netflix’s eligibility for awards, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind couldn’t really arrive at a better time. A good but very conventional crowd pleaser, it’s the kind of film that always feels like the effort of a serious movie studio, bolstered by the unique mark of Netflix’s lack of worry about conventional box office concerns. With around a 50:50 linguistic split between English and Chichewa, it’s not only a feelgood true story about ingenious kids overcoming impossible odds, but also a layered look at life in Malawi with the kind of complexity western-backed movies rarely offer Africa.
Set mainly in village of Wimbe in 2001, we follow gifted 14 year old engineer William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba) as a disastrous harvest forces him out of school and drives his previously supportive parents to near madness with anxiety. Hanging around scrapyards to find building materials, William devises a way to wind-power an old water pump and irrigate the local farms, but his family’s financial troubles and his father Trywell’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) prideful reluctance to admit his son might know better than him prove mighty obstacles. It’s a story that takes a while to get going, and hits very familiar beats throughout, but is undeniably effective come the end.
A lot of this is down to Ejiofor’s performance. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind marks Ejiofor’s writing and directing debut, and he’s bold in casting himself as an often deeply unlikable figure, whose need to control his surroundings comes at an increasing cost to his family. It’s a characteristically excellent performance that never falls into caricature, and he shares a warm and believable familial chemistry with both Simba and Aissa Maiga (playing William’s mother, Agnes).
Filmed on location in Malawi, Ejiofor brings Wimbe to vibrant life. There’s a push and pull of modernisation and tradition, from corporations buying up land and engaging in catastrophic deforestation to the absolutely hypnotic traditional Malawian dances that bookend the film. It’s a well-studied and frankly presented look a nation in flux that doesn’t generalise or present the same clichéd version of ‘Africa The Country’ that so many films set on the massive and hugely diverse continent traffic in. Ejiofor pointedly rejects the idea of America as the centre of the world, a radio broadcast describing the 9/11 attacks instantly changed over to coverage of a Malawian football match.
Outside of its setting, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind does nothing to surprise, rigorously sticking to the predictable ‘inspiring true story’ structure. It also doesn’t quite have enough story to fill out the full runtime, and the third act suffers notably as a result, dragged down by repetition. The last few scenes, though, are (while a little hokey) powerful, thanks mostly to Ejiofor’s screen presence. In one moment, a spark of joy runs across Trywell’s face, followed by a shout of happy laughter that’s utterly infectious not only for the people of Wimbe, but for any audience. It’s the exact kind of grace note that films like this thrive on.