There is a formula to making this type of film and director Mira Nair (New York, I Love You, Vanity Fair) follows it closely. This is no criticism as the film hits all the right notes and makes you care about the characters involved. You are invested in the outcome as well as cheering for Phiona for the whole just over two hours of the film.
Nair is acutely aware that for a sports/game film involving an underdog you really have to build up the audience members’ awareness of all the trials and tribulations our hero has to overcome before reaching victory. It is not ruining everything by saying that film ends in victory; they all do of this sort of film. Plus, come on, it is a Disney film.
Single mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o – Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 12 Years a Slave) is doing her best to raise her children in the slums of Uganda. It is tough for a woman to do this on her own. They do not have much to each, the older children have to go out and try to sell maize and no one is going to school. Her youngest daughter Phiona (Madina Nalwanga – first film) stumbles upon an outreach program run by Robert Natende (David Oyelowo – Selma, Interstellar). He is teaching some of the poorest kids of the area how to play chess. The game captures Phiona and early on she shows an aptitude for it. The game might be Phiona and her family’s ticket out of the abject poverty they live in.
What makes this film stand out from the rest of its type is that a girl is the central figure. This type of film is usually dominated by boys/men. A refreshing change. Another difference is that the entire cast is black. There is nary a white face to be seen. Another refreshing aspect of the film is it authentic cast. Most of the young actors are Africans who are acting for the first time. The two veterans in the cast – Nyong’o and Oyelowo – are given their fair share of screen time and do much with it. Oyelowo brings an intelligence and big heart to Robert and Nyong’o a fierceness and strong maternal instinct to Harriet. Filling out the film’s acting heart is newcomer Madina Nalwanga. Not an actress what she brings to the role is a determination and authenticity you rarely get to see even in the most schooled actor.
The story (which is a true one) is unabashedly sentimental. It is not subtle about wanting to tug at your heartstrings, but despite this transparency you cannot help but love it. Another plus is that the message transmitted is an important one. Even the downtrodden can triumph and become role models. Family films like this one in which all ages can relate to and appreciate what is going on are few and far between. It is always great when one comes out and it is inspirational.
Totally a feel good film that will have you shedding some tears along the way. Who doesn’t like a tale of a hero winning despite all the odds stacked against them? I can see the film not doing huge box office, but being a favourite with whomever goes to see it.