Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5.
USA, 2016. ESPN Films, Walt Disney Pictures. Screenplay by William Wheeler, based on the ESPN Magazine article and book by Tim Crothers. Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt. Produced by John B. Carls, Lydia Dean Pilcher. Music by Alex Heffes. Production Design by Stephanie Carroll. Costume Design by Mobolaji Dawodu. Film Editing by Barry Alexander Brown. Toronto International Film Festival 2016.
A soccer coach (David Oyelowo) struggling to make ends meet is told by two boys in his class that their mother does not want them playing soccer because there’s no money for the doctor if they get injured. Wanting to keep them active, the coach instead teaches them to play chess, which draws the attention of Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga, who is wonderful), an adolescent girl who learns the rules of chess quickly and, before anyone knows it, becomes the Bobby Fischer of her Ugandan village. It is not long before she and her friends are taking their skills to big cities and competing against students from posh schools, upending any ideas of class being the only path to success in countries where the divide between rich and poor is as large as the continent upon which they live. Phiona’s passion for this game of strategy does not go over too well at home, drawing suspicion from her single mother (Lupita Nyong’o), who struggles on a daily basis to keep herself and her children together as a vegetable seller. The family’s poverty is constantly at the mercy of fortune, so when their daily routine is interrupted by a girl who is exposed to a world of privilege and ease, she has trouble fitting back in after she begins to achieve success outside of their community. While you might think that a Disney film about African characters will be an exercise in torturous sentimentality, this film plays out with so much sincerity and its conflicts are so well established that, despite being perfectly appropriate family viewing, it is a challenging and deeply felt experience. Director Mira Nair has never been one to avoid melodramatic excess, and there are moments throughout this film that remind you that are watching the plight of the third world being packaged comfortably for your privileged western eyes, but with her perspective in the director’s chair you also have narrative details that a journeyman hire from Disney would not necessarily present so honestly: the shabbily dressed children of a remote village don’t know how to behave when platters of food are put before them at the school they visit, and Nair is not embarrassed by them nor anxious to turn it to a kind of adorable impishness on their part, frankly presenting their dirty poverty while also maintaining the bright colours that populate the images of all her films. The plot moves through a well-worn groove of the Inspirational Biopic (discovery, determination, setback, success) but the complexity brought to the screen by Nyong’o’s performance, who really makes us feel her fear and confusion, is the film’s most grounded and unforgettable element.