'The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind' Review: Chiwetel Ejiofor's Directorial Debut Has Its Heart In The Right Place [Sundance]

Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Doctor Strange) wrote, directed, and stars in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a testament to the power of education and science and a movie that feels like a revolutionary act in 2019 America. As world leaders continue to ignore climate change, Ejiofor's movie provides a sliver of hope through a true story of resilience and ingenuity in the face of overwhelming odds.

William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba), a promising 13-year-old student who's always tinkering with batteries and broken radios, lives with his family in the Malawian countryside. The son of a no-nonsense farmer named Trywell (Ejiofor), William is a sharp kid who's genuinely excited when his parents send him to the local school. But his family's livelihood depends on their harvest, and unreliable weather has put the whole town at risk. A local tobacco company capitalizes on their misfortune, moving in on the largely-uneducated farmers and offering to purchase their land so the company can expand their empire. Trywell is too proud to sell, but an impending dry season and no sign of respite means he can no longer afford to pay William's school fees. So the boy sneaks into his school library and attempts to study his way through the problem.

Ejiofor is at his best in front of the camera during scenes of family strife, with his character's frustration rising as he realizes how difficult it's going to be to support his wife, son, daughter, and newborn baby. He can furrow his brow with the best of them, and when he learns that the government isn't going to support farmers with subsidies (thanks to 9/11 and its impact on the global economy), he becomes an impassioned activist. But that means leaving his family behind during a key stretch of the movie when the rest of the town is becoming increasingly desperate, and this is where he shines behind the camera. Ejiofor handles huge crowd scenes with ease, capturing the frightened helplessness on the faces of the Malawian citizens. Greed is the primary villain, causing an intense desperation that trickles down to the lower class, resulting in robberies as people fight to feed their families. It's fascinating stuff, but it feels slightly out of place in a story that's ostensibly supposed to have William at its center.

Newcomer Maxwell Simba has an easy going on-screen presence, and you can see the wheels turning in his head when he has a literal light-bulb moment in the movie (he stares into a bike light that's powered by its spinning wheels, and decides to apply that concept to solve his family's farming problem). Dick Pope's cinematography captures the arid, natural beauty of Malawi, and the supporting cast (Aissa Maiga, Lily Banda, Lemogang Tsipa, and Joseph Marcell, who played Geoffrey the butler in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) all give their characters a sense of life and love, either for each other or for the country that's letting them down.

Weirdly, the movie doesn't seem overly concerned with exploring William's innovative idea in great detail. That's a shame, because this story could have benefited from a dash of inspiration from The Martian (which also featured Ejiofor), tracking the exact step-by-step process of the boy's incredible achievement. As it stands, the movie reaches some emotional and inspirational heights during its climax, but I can't help but feel that those heights may have peaked even higher with a more concentrated approach. The titular harnessing of the wind is almost treated as an afterthought.

Netflix will be releasing The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind on March 1, 2019.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10