Netflix’s first foray into feature film distribution is no easy sell: a lengthy, bloody chronicle of one child soldier’s dehumanisation, shot in Ghana with only one star name propping up a cast of novices and unknowns.
Kudos to Cary Joji Fukunaga, then, for turning a 2005 novel by Uzodinma Iweala into such a stirring and forceful drama – one that not only alerts us to a plight suffered by up to half a million children around the world, but also to the strength and resilience that allow the fortunate few to survive it.
Our hero is Agu (Abraham Attah), a happy urchin whose carefree childhood in an unnamed African country is shattered by a civil war that deprives him of his mother, teacher father and beloved older brother. Taking refuge in the jungle from his nation’s savage armed forces, he falls in with an even more brutal rebel militia led by the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba): a man who demands unwavering loyalty from his ragtag legion and who swiftly indoctrinates Agu in its kill-or-be-killed philosophy.
Obliged to play Oliver to this diabolical Fagin, Agu soon learns to hack, shoot and slaughter, winning not only the respect of his manipulative mentor but also the friendship of one of his fellow recruits (a mute yet expressive Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye). With each fresh trauma, though, a little less soul remains, something Attah poignantly conveys even as Agu devolves into a stone-faced, battle-scarred automaton.
Elba, for his part, is fiercely compelling in a role that could almost be the demonic flipside to the benign leader he played in Mandela, especially in later scenes that see the Commandant rebel against his ‘supreme commander’ (Jude Akuwudike) and take off on his own like some latter-day Colonel Kurtz.
It could be argued, however, that Fukunaga makes his job easier by downplaying the sexual abuse of his charges that was explicit in Iweala’s original: an odd bit of censorship in a film that has no qualms about showing its other lead cleaving a defenceless man to pieces or blowing a woman’s brains out mid-rape.
Such scenes pack a knockout punch made all the more visceral by Fukunaga’s own handheld camerawork, the Sin Nombre director placing us right in the crosshairs of a conflict that we, like Agu, can only vaguely comprehend. We may not end up with his PTSD, but we certainly emerge both battered and chastened.