The Pitch: He’s been on The Daily Show, he gave a TED Talk, and now he has his very own movie. Participant Media presents: a wholly informed yet ultimately mediocre adaptation of a rousing true story. Chiwetel Ejiofor adapts and directs the tale of William Kamkwamba, working from the book of same name about the famed Malawi inventor and teen engineer. Kamkwamba’s story began in the early 2000s. He wasn’t necessarily a prodigious child, but he had a knack for science that made him invaluable to his village in tough times. His attempts to attend school were thwarted by everything: finances, famine, political unrest. But Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba) didn’t let up. His curiosity drove him. He enjoyed messing with radios and batteries, and often went unappreciated in a village where much of the older generation still took stock in divine traditions. Like many a DIY enthusiast, he snuck into the library and learned. When faced with serious drought, Kamkwamba fought for a really great idea: a turbine that could feed well water to their crops. William Kamkwamba, the boy who saved the damn village. Seriously, give him a hand.
It’s Hard Out Here for a Pump: The great thing about The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is that at the very least, you might learn something. Ejiofor’s directorial debut works hard to contextualize Kamkwamba’s struggles, really focusing in on what drove him to build his windmill. This isn’t Rocky for the science set, it’s a socioeconomic portrait of Kamkwamba’s ingenuity in the face of poverty. The real-life story kicks off around 2001, and the sense of place is immediate: his family in the fields, exhausting themselves to death pulling corn in hopes of keeping a crop alive. While some parts of Malawi had modernized by that time, this is a story of small village life. William can barely study for school because his family needs to save kerosene; no books after dark. When William’s studies are cut short, it’s because of the weather and the fact that the school is hard-up for funds. Even if his father Trywell (Ejiofor) could pay William’s dues on time, the likelihood the young man would finish a full year is slim. Ejiofor the director is adamant about depicting the harshness of William’s life, and it drives the necessity of Kamkwamba’s windmill, which the movie doesn’t really treat like a divine invention. It’s a necessity. And William was lucky just to get the pieces together. He actually has to fight his father for a bike chain that could make the windmill run and save the crop, because Trywell thinks that his son is a silly boy.
The cultural insight and Kamkwamba’s hard-luck ingenuity are both absolutely worth a movie, so it’s a shame that The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind isn’t a better one. Ejiofor’s writing and direction is strictly meat-and-potatoes. Father-son arguments straight out of The Great Santini. Heated cinematography driving home impoverished conditions with cracked earth, muddy fields, and dilapidated huts. And Ejiofor’s vision of Kamkwamba ranges from childish tinkerer to impassioned rebel, which would feel more like an arc if the script weren’t so abruptly patchwork. Strife + strife + tear-filled testimonial + strife = payoff? There’s no narrative flow. The real man is impressive, his accomplishments worthy of being shared, but the material rarely moves beyond core beats in venerable fashion. Perhaps it’s the sluggish pacing, or the tonal inconsistency, but The Boy never rises above in his own film. It’s too forthright to be accused of well-meaning outsider fetishism. But it’s no rich adaptation either.
Participant of the Problem?: Production house Participant Media has made its mission to “spur social change” through its movie productions, particularly its documentaries. An Inconvenient Truth, Standard Operating Procedure, Food, Inc., The Look of Silence. Business practices, environmental issues, and foreign policies influence their work. Their documentary record is arguably spotless, with a worldly bent on bringing social issues buried on page 10 to the forefront. Their feature films, on the other hand, are far more of a mixed bag. But the intentions are always good. The desire to learn, teach, and stir is ceaseless.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind fits pretty firmly within Participant’s clumsy feature film stable. Good intentions. Mucky execution. Tonal discord. And a lingering sense that yes, maybe reading a book or watching the subject speak at a college would have been a more engaging way to learn about the story. If the intent is to spur social change, Ejiofor’s stark, shrewd effort may not be the vehicle Malawi was looking for. There’s no oomph, no passion, no brave insight; just filmed liner notes on what feels like a visual re-telling as book report. Messaging, no matter how important it is, still needs to be strong. That’s dirty marketing talk right there, but there’s something to it all the same.
The Verdict: To commend The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is reasonably easy. Here’s a film that’s pro-science, and sheds new light on a world that Western audiences don’t normally see. But it’s all so dramatically meager and obvious as well. It’s the film’s inability to move beyond what can be understood in the first five minutes that brings it down after a while. Passionate retellings can make a difference, and from where this writer stands, not everyone will be left as interested in this story as they could have been.
Where’s It Playing? Streaming on Netflix.