In a time when science is considered opinion and a token in political games, it’s heartwarming to get a film that celebrates ingenuity inspired by a love of science and learning. Marking the directorial debut from actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Children of Men), The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the true life story of 13-year-old William Kamkwamba (newcomer Maxwell Simba), who lives with his family in the African nation of Malawi. He’s a good student in his village’s private school, but when issues with the land and a lack of rain lead to a poor harvest and eventually famine, William is forced to drop out of school because his family can no longer afford to send him.
William attempts to sneak back into school (how many children would try that in America?), and when the teacher is forced to kick him out, he grabs one book that just happens to describe the process of building a windmill. After a few more clandestine trips to the school library for research, William approaches his father (played by the director, who also adapted Kamkwamba’ book) with the idea of building the windmill in order to power and irrigation system that the village could use to kick-start growing again. His father is initially resistant, but watching many villagers starving to death (many leaving or agreeing to sell their land to the corrupt government), he agrees to let the boy try his experiment with the help of many of the locals.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is not only designed to be inspiring and a testimony to science and perseverance, but Ejiofor successfully captures what is essentially the group trauma of a village being forced to starve when its government does not help its people. There are moments long before the windmill idea takes shape where William’s family’s small stash of grain is stolen by groups of thieves, leaving the family with no food, and it’s absolutely devastating. William didn’t come up with the windmill idea because he was smart and capable; if he didn’t do something, everyone he loved would die. William’s mother, Agnes (Aissa Maiga), is the rock that holds the family together, while his sister Annie (Lily Banda) gives up on stay and runs off with William’s science teacher (Lemogang Tsipsa), who is secretly dating her.
With its honest portrayal of human suffering, the film is often difficult to watch, but that makes its high points pay off all the more and turn the movie into one of the most inspirational tales I’ve seen years. More than anything, Ejiofor’s hand as a director is so assured and his ability to capture the depths of human emotion is so stirring that I can’t wait to see what he brings to the screen next as a filmmaker, as well as an actor.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and is available to stream on Netflix.
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