What kinds of movies do nuns like? The response I most often get when I ask my sisters in religious life is: “True life stories.” It seems to me that films based on real-life stories have developed into a genre that is increasingly well-crafted. One of the latest in this genre, Netflix film The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, is no exception.
The directorial debut of Chiwetel Ejiofor (perhaps best known for his award-winning role as the lead actor in 12 Years a Slave) is a moving tribute to true-life hero William Kamkwamba, as well as an uplifting portrayal of family and the power of human hope and determination to unite and save a village. Powerful acting, a traditional, well-crafted rising storyline with life-and-death stakes, all rooted in the very real famine in Malawi in 2002, make The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind a no-brainer for family movie night.
Bright young teen William Kamkwamba has just been enrolled in a new school due to the great sacrifice of his family. But William is soon expelled when his family is unable to pay school tuition due to a severe flood followed by drought which destroys his family’s (and the region’s) crops. Desperate for an education, William sneaks into the library and discovers a book about wind turbines that gives him an idea for how to help his family.
As the threat of famine spreads throughout the region, William becomes more and more determined to build a wind turbine that can power the well-pump, thus making it possible to irrigate crops during the dry season and save not only his family but the village.
William’s success is never in question if you know the film’s title or have seen the movie trailers. What carries the film is the well-written script (adapted by director Eijofor from the book co-authored by William himself), the rising tension, and the creative persistence of young William through obstacles that start small—with the school principal’s not allowing William into the library—but that rapidly grow into seeming insurmountable. As survival becomes more and more precarious, it is impossible not to root for young William and his family, who so bravely face every challenge despite incredibly limited resources. Director Eijofor pulls strong performances from the entire cast, notably from young Maxwell Simba, whose portrayal of William feels absolutely authentic. (Eijofor’s own performance as William’s father Tyrell, and Aïssa Maïga’s amazing performance as William’s mother Agnes are both superb.)
Despite heartwarming characters and story, I found this straightforward film a bit too predictable, perhaps with an overly-simplistic portrayal of obstacles overcome. Taken together, these can make the film feel a bit contrived and even somewhat sentimental. One of the strengths of the film’s simplicity is how comfortably easy it feels to quickly identify with the Kamkwamba family; yet this raises a question of the authenticity of the film’s portrayal of Malawian culture. Should it have taken a bit more effort for a viewer like me to enter into Malawian culture? Nevertheless, from my limited research of Malawi, the film’s depiction seems authentic. (I have been learning about Malawi situation since 2017, when my congregation, the Daughters of Saint Paul, founded our first community there.)
Window to the Soul?
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a refreshing choice amid the majority of Netflix’s dark and violence-driven programming. Sympathetic characters and a compelling storyline portray important human values such as community, familial love, forgiveness, humility, respect for elders, the value of education, and the power of hope. Religion receives a welcome portrayal as simply a part of life. Perhaps the strongest parts of the story were the explorations of tension between family members, as each member struggles to protect one another and then survive in increasingly desperate circumstances. Without downplaying anyone, every member of the family is portrayed as having an important role to play in the crisis.
With its somewhat simplified storyline, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is especially suitable for family viewing (with TV-PG rating). An inspiring story that enables us to enter into the very different culture of an African country on the brink of devastation, William’s example encourages us to appreciate family, to value education, and to persevere in doing the most we can with what we have, not giving up no matter how many seemingly impossible obstacles we face.
A Meeting Jesus at the Movies Guide will be available shortly for those who wish to enhance family and classroom viewing.