There are few film actors working today who so precisely exploits his toolkit (if I may make up a phrase that sounds like the junk they say in theater schools) as Chiwetel Ejiofor. Think back to the close up in 12 Years A Slave when Solomon Northrup accepts that he can no longer consider himself apart from his fellow community of slaves, and takes succor in joining them in song. It's an entire cycle of emotions in just one glance. There's something similar to it at the end of The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, the Netflix original that Ejiofor also wrote and directed. With just his eyes Ejiofor expresses a full thesaurus of emotions, and if you are watching at home make sure you've got a box of Kleenex near by. He's just that good.
He's also got chops as a director, and not just "for a first timer" either. This based-on-an-inspiring-true-story film may be a smidge on the predictable side, but once it settles into its pace, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is an effective drama that wisely takes its time to explore its rich, unique setting. That's a polite way of saying it's slow, but not boring. Most of that is thanks to the performances and the location shooting from celebrated British cinematographer Dick Pope.
Set in the small East African nation of Malawi, William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba) is the boy of the title, a bright and perceptive kid born to subsistence farmers (Ejiofor and Aïssa Maïga) who want nothing more than for William and older sister Annie (Lily Banda) to grow up modern. They won't be the types who "pray for rain." As such, they will attend school, but school costs money, and bad weather means few crops. Add to this political upheaval (a government-in-absentia that ignores their local elders) and a disinterested world community (the recent 9/11 attacks has everyone's attention) and William's small village is inches away from a major food crisis.
The dissolution of societal norms always makes for a terrifying film (see: every George Romero movie and their knockoffs) but The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is more humanist that horror. William is clearly sharp (though his grades aren't so hot; he can't study at night because there isn't enough kerosene keep a light on after dark) but he is forced to leave school when his parents can't pay. A compassionate teacher slips him into the library (well, mostly because he is sweet on Annie) and it is here, looking at a science text, where he realizes he may be able to MacGyver-together an irrigation system out of bicycle parts and scrapyard junk.
One look at the title and you can figure out how it goes. But it's the journey, not the destination. Along the route there are some dark moments of bandits, food scarcity and a community close to panic. Somehow starting at the beginning of a crisis and watching it devolve seems more real than just dropping into a story where people are already overwhelmed by tragedy. That choice is less dramatic, so points go to Ejiofor for making what is still an engaging film. "Gee, what would I do?" is the question he wants us to ask, and by and large he succeeds.
Of course, what I wouldn't do is figure out how to put together a windmill with my own hands. That's what separates someone like William Kamkwamba from an everyday putz like me. This movie could have been one of those "I feel guilty, so I better watch this" chores, but harnessing the specificity and honesty make it special.
Jordan Hoffman is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, whose work has appeared in The Guardian, VanityFair.com, amNewYork, Thrillist and Times of Israel.