Browsing Netflix’s popular titles, a friend and I stumbled across Beasts of No Nation. It had a perfect score and was rated 8/10 on imdb, so why not? Because if we didn’t take a chance, we would’ve missed out on the best “8/10” movie ever.
Beasts of No Nation takes place in a miscellaneous African nation (bordering Nigeria), using proxy factions to depict a conflict that is distinctly modern and surprisingly visceral. Dem feels, they are good. The movie follows the transformation of a young village boy, Agu, into a child soldier, and all the horrors of war that come with it.
The most impressive accomplishment of the film happens in the first fifteen minutes. In that short amount of time the characters are no longer characters but become real people. It’s comedy that does it, but the goal of this movie is not to make you laugh, but rather to make you think, and show you the hardships that a lot of people go through on the other side of this planet. It does this by using comedy as a tool. I’m not a professional critic, but I think the reason this film makes us care is because it uses humour as a tool. A good joke is universal, and all cultures know how to laugh. Here we have a family in Africa, whose living conditions are as far removed from the typical first-world suburban family as possible, and the film compels you to feel compassion within the first fifteen minutes. When a story makes you laugh, whether it’s a movie, book, or video game, it has your soul.
Maybe it’s the whole “positive feelings trump negative feelings” thing, or it’s the fact that comedy and tragedy are fundamental elements in both human experience and theatre in general. The point is that the film successfully makes us sympathize with Agu very early on. From thereon out we laugh when Agu laughs, and we hate the world when the world puts Agu through hell.
A movie can easily fail when it tries to shove things down the audience’s throat. This movie has a lot of lessons to teach, but fortunately it never feels like a pill. I suspect it’s mostly because of what I’ve said above, how it successfully makes us care for Agu by being funny and real, but I think the story and how it’s told deserves a lot of credit here. The flow of the story feels natural, and all the events, not just the major plot points but even the little things, make sense. This movie has something to say about drugs, war, terrorism, politics (and its relation to the military), gender issues, child soldiers, PTSD, soldier’s guilt, and more. That’s a lot of things to comment on, but because of how the story unfolds, the movie gets a chance to touch on each of these subjects briefly and effectively. Thing A occurs, which causes Thing B to come next, and so when Thing B happens to lead into a moral issue, whatever the movie’s trying to say feels natural, and we’re cool with it. If you want to teach something, that’s best way to go about it: make it feel natural, and a necessary consequence of the plot. I don’t know if the praise should go to the novelist or the screenwriter, because I haven’t read the book, but they took advantage of a simple premise (life of one boy) and made something inspiring and thought-provoking.
As stated everywhere this movie is mentioned, Abraham Attah and Idris Elba steal the show. Their performances are phenomenal, taking their respective roles beyond stereotypes and propping themselves up as unique and interesting characters. Attah plays Agu, the young protagonist of the story. The fact that Attah is an unknown works greatly in favour of the film. With any movie, it always helps with audience immersion when we don’t recognize the actors. For example, I’d have a hard time taking the movie seriously if Jaden Smith played the starring role. Not knowing who Attah was made the suspension of disbelief more natural. Alternatively, I recognized Elba as soon as he took his glasses off, but his acting was so good that it was easy to believe his character. The entire film has a distinctly African flavour, and both Elba and his character fit right in.
The final thing I want to talk about is the ending. I think most people would agree that bittersweet endings are the best, because they feel honest, don’t they? Life rarely gives us happy endings, but it’s not all that bad either. This movie ends with a powerful message of hope. Despite everything that Agu has gone through, we are left with the hope that he might be able to go back to being just a kid. It’s a slim hope, but it’s there nevertheless, and while it’s not much it still makes a world of difference. In my childhood (heck, my entire life) I’ve spent more time laughing and having fun way more than I have crying and bleeding. That is what every child deserves, and that is the hope this movie leaves us with, in the absence of words.
Netflix and chill? More like: Netflix and watch a hell of a good movie. Beasts of No Nation is a Netflix exclusive, so it’s probably the only way you’ll be able to watch it. I did my best to leave things ambiguous in the review, so you’ve been spared spoilers on certain plot points, but like any good story, the best part is watching how the story happens, and you’ll enjoy every minute of it. Highly recommended if you’re into war movies, and movies that treat their topics seriously without being pretentious or overbearing. Plus it’s a novel concept; there aren’t really a whole lot of movies about child soldiers, and Beasts of No Nation appears to simultaneously do it right, and to do it justice.
This has been a gamobo review.