I have enjoyed Chiwetel Ejiofor’s work in lots of movies (e.g. “Inside Man,” “Talk To Me,” and his Oscar-nominated leading role in “12 Years A Slave”). Now he’s gotten his first shot at directing a feature with “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind,” which he also wrote and stars in. It debuts on Netflix today, based on a memoir by William Kamkwamba.
The movie takes place in a small village in Malawi, where teenage William lives with his mother, father, and two siblings. They farm the land, growing corn, but it’s been excruciatingly tough because floods washed away their crops during the rainy season, while the sun has baked the land the rest of the year to such an extent that very little will grow. Unless conditions change, the family — and the rest of their tribe — may not survive.
“The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind” is not entirely gloomy, however. There’s wonderful chemistry between the family members, including a sweet scene in which William is sent off to high school by Trywell, his father (Ejiofor). Ironically, in such a dry village, William is thirsty for knowledge — he’s always observing and listening to understand what’s happening around him — which is what leads to him reading a book from the school’s library about using wind power to create electricity.
As you probably guessed from the spoiler title (the worst one since Mark Wahlberg’s “Last Survivor”), William eventually succeeds in building a windmill that powers a pump that brings water up from a well that is used to irrigate the farm. Unfortunately, that happy day and its impact don’t get much play because, by then, the film has gone on at least 15 minutes longer than it needs to. Like many first-time directors working from their own script (I’m talking about you, Aaron Sorkin), Ejiofor spends too much time on elements in the middle of the story, and not enough on a happiness-filled third act that would better balance the previous emotional devastation.
That said, the movie is shot beautifully to capture its sun-baked, dust-covered East Africa location, and Ejiofor gets good performances out of the cast, all unknowns, many of them making their debuts, including Maxwell Simba, particularly good as the title character. Ejiofor also has enough confidence to have written some very unsympathetic scenes for his own character, a stubborn, proud man trying to keep his family alive while ignoring his son’s attempts to help.
While some of the movie’s dialogue is in English, the majority is in Chichewa, the native language of the Malawi villagers. Although I usually eschew films with subtitles (not fun having to keep bobbing my head up and down to keep everything in focus through my trifocals), I didn’t find it too much of a distraction this time.
“The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind” is the kind of small movie Netflix can make that would otherwise struggle to find an audience, or even theaters to exhibit it. It reminds me of “Queen Of Katwe,” a 2016 movie I praised highly, about another very smart kid (i.e. a girl who excelled at chess) in a small African village. Unfortunately, even with some promotion from Disney, it came and went too quickly, a family-friendly movie that far too few families watched.
I’m not sure families with kids will have the patience to sit through Ejiofor’s movie long enough to see the boy harness the wind. It may be enough to get his foot in the directing door for future projects, but he’ll have to learn how to edit more for pace.
I give it a 6.5 out of 10. If you stream it, stick around through the end credits, which includes footage of the real William and his family and their fates.