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On Sunday, audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival will see what audiences at the Venice and Telluride film festivals were the first to see over Labor Day weekend: Beasts of No Nation, the first original narrative motion picture from Netflix, the streaming service that until this year had, in the film realm, exclusively released the work of others. The film will be simultaneously released on Netflix and in select U.S. theaters, courtesy of Bleecker Street, on Oct. 16.
Netflix is famous for sparing no expense when it comes to producing quality original programming. Therefore, it’s not surprising that it got some of the world’s most elite talent to anchor this adaptation of Nigerian-American Uzodinma Iweala‘s critically acclaimed 2005 novel, which centers around a young boy from an unnamed West African country who is torn apart from his family by civil war and joins an army of child soldiers led by Elba’s charismatic Commandant, who the kids come to regard as a surrogate parent, for whose love and approval they will do anything, until paranoia sets in.
Beasts was adapted (over the course of seven years), directed (in Ghana, a first for an American film) and even shot (due to an injury to its original DP) by Cary Fukunaga, whose stock soared after he helmed the highly acclaimed first season of HBO’s True Detective, for which he won an Emmy; and it stars, in a supporting role, Idris Elba, who made his name on HBO’s The Wire and recently won raves for his work as the title character in another film shot and set in Africa, 2013’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
Its lead actor, however, is someone who had never acted before. His name is Abraham Attah, he was found on the ground in Ghana and he really rises to the occasion. In Telluride, Elba praised his young costar, who had never before been to America: “He had never acted before, but he did it with a lot of courage and wholeheartedness.”
Beasts is unusual, in that so few films are made about children, and upsetting, in that it’s about children in peril — and subjecting others to it. 2002’s City of God is, perhaps, the most famous example of this troubling sub-genre. But the one that is most apt is probably War Witch, a Canadian drama from that same year that is set in the Congo and, like Beasts, shows the horrifying ways in which a happy child can wind up as a ruthless soldier in Africa; it was rightly nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar.
Does Beasts of No Nation have Oscar noms in its future too? It faces an uphill climb, since its characters commit such cold-blooded atrocities that it becomes hard to feel sympathy for any of them — even its young protagonist. (Indeed, the violence depicted in the film is so gruesome that there were quite a few walkouts in Telluride.)
On the other hand, it has a number of things going for it. It’s ambitious. It seems to have critics behind it. And, perhaps most importantly, it has Netflix behind it. Netflix, in its quest to grow its profile and subscriber base, has shown a willingness to do whatever is necessary to give its projects a great shot at awards. Look no further than the last two years: one of its docs landed a nom in each of them.
My hunch is that its best shots are in the supporting actor category (Elba’s “I am your future” monologue takes your breath away) and, believe it or not, in the cinematography category (Fukunaga or whoever was operating the camera did some really creative things, not least of all having blood splatter on the lens, a la 2006’s Children of Men).
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