The directorial debut of Oscar-winning actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, the stirring "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind" is based on the true story of Malawian engineer William Kamkwamba, a self-taught teenage genius who constructed a windmill to save his village from certain starvation. Adapted from Kamkwamba's bestselling 2009 memoir, the film played Sundance to great acclaim in January and now debuts on Netflix this Friday.
Set in 2001, the film introduces us to 13-year-old William (Maxwell Simba), a boy with a natural curiosity for how things work. A born tinkerer, he earns a bit of money by repairing radios and small electronics for his fellow villagers. Any free moments are spent combing the nearby junkyard for useful scrap.
William lives with his parents Trywell (Ejiofor) and Agnes (AïssaMaïga), older sister Annie (Lily Banda), and an infant sister. They're a close knit family and Trywell and Agnes are determined to make sure their children get an education, even while they struggle to make ends meet with their small farm.
We see Trywell is a man who cares deeply for his village, though it's increasingly threatened by corruption from local politicians and predatory landowners that put the fate of the farm in jeopardy. And that's before the unreliable weather and drought create a devastating national food shortage. He's a proud, honest man who'll do everything he can for his family; at their lowest point he even begins to starve himself so his children might have food to eat.
Despite being a bright student, the resourceful William ends up being expelled from school when his parents are no long able to make their payments. But the resourceful teen finds a way to continue using the library, eventually stumbling on an American textbook on energy that first gives him the idea to build a wind turbine cobbled together from household objects and scrap materials. He believes the device will be able to create enough electricity to power a large pump to bring water to the farm during the dry season.
Kamkwamba was the subject of an award-winning documentary, Ben Nabors' 2013 "William and the Windmill," and his story is a powerful one. In "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," newcomer Maxwell Simba plays William, in what will hopefully be a breakthrough role. The young actor is a real find, capably portraying William's inexhaustible curiosity and determination.
The film was shot on location in Malawi, and it looks great. Cinematographer Dick Pope (an Oscar nominee for his work on "Mr. Turner") captures the dusty, sun-baked landscapes in vivid shades of green, brown, and tan.
Ejiofor has shown time and again that he's a remarkably sensitive performer, with an ability to imbue each of his characters with a rich humanity. With his first effort as a writer and director, Ejiofor demonstrates that that ability translates to his sensibility behind the lens as well.
Though his film lacks some suspense (the outcome is right there in the title), he delivers a textured portrayal of Malawi's communities and local culture, grounding the film in a crucial geographical and cultural specificity.
As a director, he takes time building his story, filling the narrative with sharply observed details. This is a story that leads us through a great deal of hardship that's never sugarcoated as the family's situation grows ever more dire.
In the end, "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind" tells a genuinely inspiring story of a young boy's ingenuity and how putting knowledge in the hands of those who need it the most can make all the difference in the world.