‘Beasts of No Nation’ proves both powerful and depressing

Two minutes into the Netflix Original film, “Beasts of No Nation,” I watched a group of adorable, charming children put on their own fake TV show. It was then that I knew I was absolutely going to cry at some point. The movie is about a preteen boy named Agu who lives in a West African village on the outskirts of a civil war. With school canceled indefinitely, he spends his days playing with neighborhood kids, coming up with plots to sell their “imagination TV” and harassing his older brother. But when the war finally makes its way into his village, Agu is thrust into the kind of life that no one, especially not a child, should ever have to experience.

One of this movie’s best features is the use of Agu’s narrations. Through voice-over, Agu talks to God and the viewers about his interpretations of the world. Being a young kid, he often misunderstands things the viewers can plainly see, which can be funny (casually mentioning that his brother is obsessed with sleep when he talks about wanting to “sleep” with a girl) or heartbreaking. He also never gives his family member’s names, just “father,” “older brother” and so on. This helps add a layer of childish charm that’s in total contrast to the horrific events occurring around Agu and to remind us how young he actually is. Before things fall apart, Agu, his friends and his siblings don’t take the situation very seriously because they don’t know what war is like. Once Agu is recruited by a troop of child soldiers, the contrast between bloody battle scenes and shots of the soldiers doing childish things like playing soccer and making fun of their leader is chilling.

The movie’s top-billed actor is Idris Elba, playing against type as the leader of the child soldiers. Known only as Commandant, he exploits the children and young adults in his charge through the use of manipulation, abuse and unlimited access to drugs and alcohol. His character is easily the most monstrous in the movie, beating out a list that includes all manner of warlords, predators and murderers. The Commandant is scary because he tells the kids exactly what any person wants to hear: that he cares about them, that their cause is a just one, and that they’re the toughest, bravest group of people in the world — all while using their vulnerability against them. This character shows Elba’s range as an actor, because I never thought I’d be able to dislike him so much.

I really can’t recommend this movie enough, for the most part. One thing I like about it so much is that it was adapted from a novel by Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala. As such, it lacks that tiresome “downtrodden African child is saved by American heroes” narrative that too many American films about Africa follow. The people who make those movies mean well, but they reinforce the stereotype that all Africans are hapless victims incapable of helping themselves. “Beasts of No Nation” subverts this, which is very refreshing.