Despair gives way to joy in this tale from Malawi

( PG ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

Chiwetel Ejiofor directs a humorous and graceful story that brings a lighter perspective to the catastrophic Malawai drought of 2001.

Courtesy of lze Kitshoff/Netflix
Director/actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (l.) and Maxwell Simba appear in ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,’ a Netflix original film set in rural Malawi.

Meet William Kamkwamba, a real-life MacGyver. At the start of the movie “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” the teen finds ingenious fixes for broken radios in his remote Malawian village. His father, Trywell, holds their own radio up to the sky, anxious for a weather report that will determine the future of their crops. It’s the start of the catastrophic Malawi drought of 2001.

But Netflix’s recent offering about that famine, adapted from Kamkwamba’s memoir of the same name, ends not with despair but a feast of joy. Credit the human touch of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in his first outing as writer and director. Early on he establishes the love his character, Trywell, has for William (Maxwell Simba) by surprising him with a gift: a uniform so that he can attend school. But when Trywell falls behind on school payments, William sneaks into classrooms to continue his education. Like his sister, Annie, he dreams of going to university to escape an impoverished town where AA batteries are as scarce as rainfall. 

Beyond the school, the arid farmland starts to resemble cracked eggshells. Dick Pope’s cinematography showcases Malawi’s beauty, from the oceanic vastness of the sky to little tornadoes of dust that dance like a troupe of whirling dervishes. The only drops of moisture anywhere are the tears that slalom down Trywell’s cheeks. 

As Trywell grows despondent, William is attuned to inspiration. Battling his father’s skepticism, the budding inventor endeavors to build a Rube Goldberg-like wind machine to water the crops. Ejiofor leavens the scenes of conflict between father and son, family and neighbors, voters and politicians with plentiful moments of gentle humor and grace. 

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” rated TV-PG, is a powerful testimony to how ideas are mankind’s ultimate resource. Told using a blend of English and Chichewa (with subtitles), it concludes with a Malawian proverb: “God is as the wind which touches everything.” Grade: A- (Rated TV-PG.)

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