I say, “can’t quite,” because the film does a number of things very well. Told through the eyes of a young child soldier, Agu, he is thrust into the arms of the local Rebel army and taken on a path that no man should have to see. That juxtaposition, this violence and depravity told and experienced by a child, only goes so far and Fukunaga is left with a film that doesn’t really have a lot of direction. Now, that is sort of the point and mirrors the path of the rebels, but even Agu doesn’t seem to really be on a journey after a while before getting swept up in some resolution by the end.
All that said, Fukunaga fills his film with plenty of great individual moments, only shying away from showing us the worst aspects of Agu’s life that would be illegal to show on any screen. Watching as an adult, you can’t help but shake your head at the manipulation in play, but you can easily understand how horrible things like this happened so readily around Africa. Idris Elba stars as the Commandant of Agu’s rebel army and he oozes all the charisma necessary for us to buy these kids buying into murdering people and risking their lives for a cause they can’t understand.
Agu’s background, his family is murdered by the State army, is easy to recruit with and we easily feel his pain because Fukunaga sets up Agu’s home life so well. The best stuff in the movie is the first few scenes where we see Agu bond with his brother, hustle soldiers for handouts, and learn the ins and outs of his family dynamics. I could have watched a whole film about this group of individuals, and we feel the pain as they are wiped out as if they were nothing.
Elba is the only actor most people will know in this film, but this is firmly Abraham Attah’s movie. In almost every, if not all, scenes in the movie, the kid shows you a range of emotions and never feels like some child actor. Once scene in particular, a single take at that, has Attah showing us so much, all the pain and confusion he is going through and just how deadly he has become. This is a film that doesn’t shy away from rape, drug use, violence, all being carried out or on young people, and Attah deserves high praise for never feeling like he wasn’t a part of all of this. That’s kind of a weird compliment to pay a kid acting out atrocities, but I don’t want to understate how good Attah is. Agu’s silent buddy, Strika, is also well played by Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, who really goes on the biggest emotional journey over the course of the film. The two have a competitive friendship, and Quaye’s face and eyes sell the disappointment as Agu’s favor rises.
Beasts of No Nation is well worth a watch, and is available on Netflix and theatrically October 16th. The material Fukunaga is delivering here is not for the faint of heart, but it feels like an authentic representation of the plight of a child warrior in war torn Africa. Attah is worth the price of admission, and I appreciate the emotional place he ends up at, I just wish the bridge to that place felt a little more focused; filmmaking wise.