A conventional but confidently directed debut feature from Chewitel Ejiofor, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells an uplifting story that looks and sounds great.
Writer/Director Chewitel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, The Martian) makes his directorial debut with The Boy Who Harnassed the Wind, a parable about thwarted ambition and what can happen when we entrust our faith in others’ abilities. Set in Malawi, during a drought, William, a young boy from a farming community uses his ingenuity to build a wind turbine which he uses to water the crops and rescue his village from starvation.
In format and tone, there is not much here that we have not seen before. The film has quite a familiar structure in which a seemingly insurmountable problem is encountered and just as faith and fortitude are seemingly exhausted, our protagonist’s ingenuity is rewarded, saving both the farm and the local community. That is not to say however that the film is any the less effective because of it. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind does everything it sets out to well and along the way delivers emotional heft.
Despite its PG certificate, the film makes it pretty clear that the stakes are life and death and at various points, you feel enormous empathy for the sacrifice the family are forced to make in order to make it through the day. These are larger circumstances beyond their control, yet you still feel an acute sense of loss as Annie and William are forced to resign themselves to a lifetime of farming, foregoing their educations in the process. Because the consequences are laid out so unflinchingly when we get the inevitable happy ending it feels as though it has been earned. You get your ‘punch the air’ moment of triumph but without it feeling contrived or overplayed.
The fact that you feel so strongly for the characters is down in large part to the performances Ejiofor gets from his talented cast. Ejiofor himself is typically magnetic as Trywell, a man described by an old friend as too honest to be a successful businessman. He is clearly haunted by past failures and struggles to come to terms with his own integrity in the face drought and a corrupt government. Alongside Ejiofor, particular praise should be reserved for the performance of Maxwell Simba, making his screen debut as William, the boy genius. He infuses the role with a calm assurance and spine-tingling earnestness.
For a first-time writer/director this is a remarkably confident debut. The cinematography is stunning. The landscapes and set design give us a real feel for the Malawi countryside which gives the film a really strong sense of place. But it does not just look great, it sounds great too. The score for this film does everything a good one should, underscoring the narrative without ever overwhelming it or descending into schmaltz.
The decision to largely subtitle the film and have the characters speak in Chichewa is a brave one for an English production but it pays off handsomely, giving the film authenticity and further immersing you in the environment. The story gives us the context of the corruption of Malawi’s government but always in service of the plot and never without stumbling into cliché.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is conventional but effective. It asks you to invest in its characters and then rewards you with a well-earned moment of triumph. It will be interesting to see how Ejiofor follows up this thoughtful and confidently directed drama.