The title of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, an inspirational true-story film based on a memoir by the Malawian engineer William Kamkwamba, is a bit of a spoiler. This isn’t exactly a complaint, but it’s useful to know going in. As a teenager, Kamkwamba built a wind turbine for his famine-stricken town in Malawi, helping to power small appliances and eventually irrigate crops. But though the film points toward that technological breakthrough, it spends much of its running time depicting its hero’s community and avoids many of the damaging tropes that tend to accompany pop-cultural portrayals of poverty or strife in African countries.
This nuanced approach is what makes the movie, out Friday on Netflix, much more engrossing than other such docu-dramas. Chiwetel Ejiofor, an English actor of Nigerian descent, is making his feature debut as a writer and director to draw attention to Kamkwamba’s story—but he’s just as focused on depicting the boy’s family life and the perils of farming in early-2000s Malawi. Famine isn’t just a thing that happens to the Kamkwambas. It’s the result of a series of unpredictable catastrophes that trickle down to this small village and leave its inhabitants struggling to grow and sell food. By examining the many structural reasons for the town’s crisis, Ejiofor makes Kamkwamba’s triumph feel better-earned from a narrative perspective.
William’s father, Trywell (played by Ejiofor), is a farmer who’s spent years resisting the encroachment of private, international companies—seeking to buy his land for tobacco planting—out of a sense of dignity and a love of country. When the movie begins, Trywell is sending William (Maxwell Simba) to a nearby private school, and the boy’s crisp uniform is a point of pride for the family. As William attends class and Trywell and his wife, Agnes (Aïssa Maïga), manage the farm, Ejiofor builds out the stakes of their lives and their battle with the destructive tobacco firms.
The Kamkwambas do not want for food, at first, though they do live harvest to harvest. Soon, a series of dramatic floods, combined with government unrest, begins to take a toll on their life. Through it all, William shows flashes of his ingenuity and gift for invention, taking apart whatever machines he can get his hands on and figuring out how they work. In one crucial (and cleverly written) scene, some local teenagers beg William to fix their radio so that they can listen to a soccer game, and he does, rigging up a battery from several drained power cells. As the radio jolts to life, it blares a news report of planes hitting buildings in the U.S., which serves as the first real acknowledgment of the film’s exact time period.
The uninterested teens immediately switch over to the game, but Ejiofor included that detail for a reason. Though Malawi is on the other side of the world from the U.S., and the Kamkwambas’ village is far from the country’s biggest metropolis, the destabilizing effects of 9/11 are felt even there—tanking food prices, unsettling the government, and setting off a chain reaction that quickly turns things dire for Trywell’s farm. Moments like these affirm Ejiofor’s particular skill for storytelling. It would’ve been easy to cut to harrowing and familiar news footage of the terrorist attacks, and to depict them with the usual portentousness. To William and his young friends, the event barely registers, but it still has huge consequences for their lives.
The latter half of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is tougher going than the light, community-oriented opening, but it’s anchored by strong performances. Simba (making his debut) is a sweetly compelling lead, yet anytime Ejiofor is on-screen, the film buzzes with pathos and anger. Trywell isn’t a bad father, nor a typically irate man. But as his family gets hungrier, his rage toward his government, which was supposed to help him thrive, rises to the surface. As William’s mother, Maïga is a calmer, steadier figure, but her pride is damaged, too. Agnes speaks of never wanting to be the stereotypical family “praying for rain,” as her ancestors did, and despairs as Trywell’s strategy to save the farm becomes almost exactly that.
At a certain point, I started mentally checking my watch—Isn’t it time for the boy to start harnessing the wind? But Ejiofor doesn’t want William’s massive achievement to look easy. Not only does William need to gather the practical materials needed for a windmill in a nearly abandoned town, but he also has to challenge his father’s skepticism and persuade him to give up the few possessions he still has, including a bicycle, to create something that appears impossible. It’s striking, and deeply sad, to consider that ostensibly the only thing keeping William’s town from starvation was rudimentary wind power. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind could’ve been a conventional narrative of despair and redemption; in Ejiofor’s hands, it builds realism and context into both sides of that story and manages to be a winning adaptation as a result.