Child Soldier’s Humanity The Heart Of “Beasts of No Nation”


The country in “Beasts of No Nation” is fictional but the problem is actual.

Since 2011, eighteen countries were reported as having used children in combat, according to Child Soldiers International, as portrayed in the film.

beastsSunglass-wearing, stick-chewing Idris Elba is a deadly charismatic African warlord with a ragtag army of boys fighting the government, and some have suggested an Oscar nomination for this performance after failing to receive one for “Mandela.

But the film is about the children. Especially Agu, orphaned when government soldiers shot his father after his mother fled the city. He escaped into the dense forest, beautiful when seen from above, deadly below.

That’s where Elba’s army hides, one branch of a rebel army serving a larger political leadership. He may answer to others but he is an authority figure for the children who have lost everything and become shaped in his merciless image. He says they are a “big family of strangers.”

Agu, a small silent figure becomes Elba’s project, and victim. It is no spoiler to say the youth inevitably turns against him. Before that point, however, they leave a trail of bodies, some at Agu’s hand.

“I have seen terrible things, I have done terrible things,” he says in English with an African lilt.

The film, based on a novel by Uzodinma Iweala, was adapted by writer director Cary Fukunaga, who directed the first season of “True Detective.” The good season. His work here is immersive, faithful to this world and with flourishes of “Lord of the Flies” and “Apocalypse Now.”

But it is 14-year old Abraham Fattah, as Agu, who deserves an Oscar nomination. The vacuum at the center of his performance, that is the humanity draining from Agu, is illuminated by eyes that tell a story of hope.

Fattah, from Ghana where filming took place, is making his acting debut.

“Beasts” premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where Fattah was named best young actor, and played at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. Netflix bought the film for $12 million and released it today simultaneously on line and in theaters, the latter to qualify it for Oscar consideration.

But exhibitors are boycotting the film, claiming its on line release violates the traditional 90-day exclusivity window. Only the Landmark theater chain will show it and in Milwaukee it is playing exclusively at the Downer Theater.

*** Three stars

With Abraham Fattah, Idris Elba, Ama K. Aberese, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Francis Weddey, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye. Produced by Cary Fukunaga, Amy Kaufman, Riva Marker, Daniela Taplin Lundberg. Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga.

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