Netflix’s business model remains a gift and a curse. For all the leg up it offers to new filmmakers and creators who can’t quite get Hollywood’s attention, Netflix doesn’t offer an equal amount of publicity for all of its new content. It’s honestly a miracle that Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma got the attention it did to score the streaming service its first Best Picture nomination at this year’s Oscars. But there are still plenty of movies that go unnoticed in Netflix’s lineup, which is a real shame considering there are plenty of marquee attractions — the directorial debut of Oscar-nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, for instance.
Based on the eponymous memoir, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the story of a young boy in Malawi overcoming poverty and starvation using the most basic of human traits: intelligence. William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba) lived in the small village of Kasungu in 2001 with his farmer father Trywell (Ejiofor), loving mother Agnes (Aissa Maiga) and independent sister Annie (Lily Banda). William’s family, like the rest of the community, depend on the spoils of grain farming to eat and make money while providing their children with a proper education. But when a flood and subsequent drought destroy the village’s crops, starvation and poverty set in and render everybody helpless. Despite not being able to afford an education, William sneaks into his local school and starts learning about wind-powered energy, eventually building a windmill for his village.
For all the real-world issues on display in the movie (poverty, government control, starvation, lack of educational opportunities), The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a strong example of a feel-good movie. For all the struggles that William’s family endured daily, Ejiofor highlights the connection they all share and the belief that William’s family had in him, coupled with how high he holds his family in regard. The similar dynamic is also seen in the rest of the film’s rendition of Kasungu; bits of detail in the book that Ejiofor wisely kept in his script. For a first-time feature director, Ejiofor finds some striking imagery in the impoverished area of Malawi with the help of cinematographer Dick Pope (The Illusionist, Mr. Turner). That imagery is further complemented by the stripped-back score from Antonio Pinto (City of God). The film’s technical aspects are few, but fair to point out given how simple the movie is. It’s a familiar story about how struggle tests the human spirit and innovation can come from the smallest of places.
For all the cultural notes and grounded events the movie gets right, it seems to gloss over what William found so fascinating about engineering to build his famous windmill. It’s as if the movie has too much going on to care about its titular character. That’s not taking anything away from Simba’s performance in his debut movie role, which is grounded, sympathetic and, regarding the genius within, believable. Banda, who has her own romance subplot, holds her footing as she wrestles with not being given the opportunity to seek education. Ejiofor, certainly the busiest man on the set, still manages to bring out his untouchable combination of working-man stature and heartbreaking human strife. It’s symbolic seeing Ejiofor digging deep into the muddy fields of his work, trying to pull something out.
Despite plenty of variants that came before and done better, Ejiofor’s story has certainly tangible proceedings and consequences. The best thing about The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is that its sentimentality feels real and earned. When William stands on top of his town-saving windmill feeling the gusts of accomplishment, it’s less a moment where the credits should start rolling and more of a deserving triumph.
With this tremendously heartfelt story, Ejiofor’s film should be able to weather the monsoon of Netflix’s rom-coms and bargain-bin sci-fi.