'The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Uses inspiration-film tropes as a window into rural hardship in Malawi.

Chiwetel Ejiofor's directing debut tells the true story of a self-taught teen inventor in Malawi.

There's something discomfiting about rooting for a character to invent, over the course of months and at great personal cost, something he should have had easy access to in the first place. The triumph of ingenuity over poverty is central to the story of Malawi's William Kamkwamba, the windmill-building co-author of the best-selling memoir The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. In his first feature as director (and writer), actor Chiwetel Ejiofor harnesses something else, using emotional beats familiar from a thousand "inspirational" fact-based films as a way of drawing Western viewers into the life of subsistence farmers in contemporary Malawi. Made with the intelligence and good taste one expects from Ejiofor, the involving film cares about much more than the sweeping images of triumph with which it inevitably closes.

Kamkwamba's life has already been the focus of Ben Nabors' 2013 doc William and the Windmill, which in part looks at the ethical issues around turning one child from a troubled part of the world into a global icon of virtue. While this feature version does make the usual simplifications to fit real life into a two-hour story, and has an unfailingly admiring view of its hero, it takes some time to show the varied challenges William's family faced before it gets to the rousing stuff.

We meet 13-year-old William (Maxwell Simba) in 2001, just as his uncle's death jeopardizes his father Trywell's small farm. Trywell (Ejiofor) had hoped to inherit land adjacent to his own, but instead it went to a relative whose gambling debts ensure he'll sell it to the region's tobacco estates — companies that just want to cut down trees on the land to use as fuel. Those trees' roots have long served as flood protection during heavy rains; just as Trywell predicts, his crop is wiped out soon after the trees are removed.

Adapting Kamkwamba's book himself, Ejiofor proceeds to explain other factors threatening William's loving family. Not only have they lost most of the crop they were expecting to feed them through the year, they'll have nothing to sell to meet other expenses — like the tuition needed to keep William in school. The September 11 attacks have disrupted global markets, and Malawi's leaders (preoccupied with a presidential campaign) aren't likely to find much money for famine assistance. A different kind of danger follows from those: the risk that, with no money for university, William's smart sister Annie (Lily Banda) will marry the man who's wooing her (Lemogang Tsipsa's Mike, who teaches science at William's school), have kids immediately, and never have the wider-ranging life her mother, Agnes (Aissa Maiga), wants for her.

As it follows these threats to increasingly dark places — at the family's worst point, Trywell begins starving himself so his children can eat — the movie's lighter side watches gears turn in William's head. The kid has already long been a tinkerer, fixing neighbors' radios for cash and impressing older kids by working magic with batteries. But he doesn't realize he might make electricity for himself until he sees how a lamp on Mike's bike turns the motion of the wheels into light.

It seems odd to understand the chemistry of batteries before the mechanical generation of electricity, but maybe things really worked that way for William. Certainly, his educational path depended largely on what was available in his world — broken tools and engine parts in the junkyard; outdated textbooks in the school library. After he is expelled from school for not paying tuition, he makes a sneaky deal with Mike to get library access.

Finding a book about wind power, he learns enough to design a windmill that could irrigate the family's land. In the movie's telling, Trywell is now the only obstacle in the way. The increasingly desperate man, ashamed of not being able to provide for his family, doesn't believe in his son's idea and won't give up one tool he relies on, his bicycle, for William to use in a contraption that may do nothing.

Dramatizing the building of William's windmill is a bigger challenge than dramatizing famine, corruption and domestic dilemmas. The scenes Boy ostensibly exists to show us aren't as satisfying as what precedes them: rich interactions between Agnes and Trywell or Agnes and Annie; trouble William gets into with his best friend Gilbert (Philbert Falakeza) and alone; details like the mysterious arrival of the Gule Wamkulu, masked dancers who visit funerals to help spirits into the afterlife. But few Westerners watch films with only this to offer, and few corporations fund them. Add an esteemed actor and a celebrated child hero (now a 31-year-old college graduate) to the scenario, and we have a film Netflix will support. Fair enough. Here's hoping enough people watch it to enable Ejiofor to tell many more stories in the future.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production company: Potboiler Productions
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Maxwell Simba, Lily Banda, Noma Dumezweni, Aissa Maiga, Joseph Marcell
Director-screenwriter: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Producers: Andrea Calderwood, Gail Egan
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Joe Oppenheimer, Natascha Wharton, William Kamkwamba, Bryan Mealer
Director of photography: Dick Pope
Production designer: Tule Peak
Costume designer: Bia Salgado
Editor: Valerio Bonelli
Composer: Antonio Pinto
Casting director: Alexa L. Fogel

In English and Chichewa
113 minutes