Oscar-nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor originally planned to stay behind the camera in his solid but somewhat uninvolving directorial debut, but it’s easy to understand why felt he compelled to star: Trywell Kamkwamba is one of the more fascinating characters he’s ever played.
An uneducated Malawian farmer who strives to provide schooling for his children, Trywell is too dignified to sell the family’s ancestral land to the tobacco business, and too savvy to think he can redeem his future by surrendering his past. He’s an honest man in a village that’s being choked to death by corruption, and — as a national food crisis takes hold — Trywell grows too desperate to see that his young son William (Maxwell Simba) might be the only one who can save the farm and ensure its harvest. Caught in a vulnerable position between tradition and aspiration, he’s the heart and soul of this inspirational true story. Alas, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is not about Trywell.
Of course, the incredible William Kamkwamba is more than worthy of his own movie. A 13-year-old kid in the fall of 2001, William is a naturally gifted engineer who teaches himself all sorts of applied science, despite having little access to the rest of the world and all of its basic knowledge (he learns of 9/11 while tuning a radio that he’s fixed for some of the older boys in his village; he keeps turning the dial until he finds the football game everyone’s waiting to hear). His brilliance and resolve would be impressive under any circumstances, but they’re all the more remarkable in such a difficult situation; the only reason William flunks the first test at his expensive new school is because his family can’t afford enough kerosene for him to study after dark. He is, in short, a fine testament to the untapped potential of the Malawian people.
But, without the shading and self-doubt that Ben Nabors’ 2013 documentary “William and the Windmill” found in the real Kamkwamba, the preternaturally clever boy comes off as more of a symbol than he does a hero of flesh and blood (for what it’s worth, Nabors’ film includes an uncomfortable scene in which William hesitantly sells his life rights to a movie producer). It can be difficult to dramatize the development of an exceptional young mind, especially if a filmmaker refuses to sacrifice reality in favor of the full “Good Will Hunting” treatment; as much as “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” feels like the kind of movie that Miramax might have distributed in the mid-’90s, it’s told with the sober urgency that its setting demands).
Ejiofor’s compassionate script, adapted from William’s 2009 memoir, is finely attuned to the cold realities that confront its warm characters. It only struggles to chart a clear arc for its protagonist, who remains a bright and quietly determined kid from start to finish, while his (often sidelined) father is the one who best embodies the film’s conflict.
Perhaps that’s why, despite the easy grace of Ejiofor’s direction and the vivid sense of place that it helps to create, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is told at an emotional distance. It’s certainly not the fault of Ejiofor’s cast, who bring more life to these characters than the movie has time to explore. Newcomer Maxwell Simba is a marvelous find. He can express a lifetime of frustrated self-worth in a single flare of his nostrils, and generally forces some texture into someone who the film otherwise treats like an inevitability. Simba is especially good in the first act scenes where he gets to enjoy the fleeting thrill of an education, and spies his older sister (Lily Banda) having a tryst with his teacher (Lemogang Tsipsa).
But the film really sparks to life whenever Ejiofor takes the reins. From the grief-stricken prologue, in which Trywell mourns his brother’s death and delivers exposition at a funeral, to the powerful later passage when the character is forced to pray for rain, Ejiofor fills him with the fire of a man who doesn’t know how to reconcile his love for a home (and for a country) that won’t love him back.
While the film could have dug much deeper into the unique dynamic between father and son, some of its most wrenching scenes follow Trywell as he watches his neighbors sell out their legacies, and his government sell out its citizens (Joseph Marcell, who American audiences know best as the butler from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” gives an electrifying supporting turn as a village chief willing to die for his people). Eventually, Trywell is held down by the fact that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know; the world is rigged against the poor, who can’t afford the education they need to lift themselves up. This is a regrettably universal story, in that way.
At the same time, Ejiofor ensures that “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is rooted to a specific place. He shot the film on location in Malawi, and in the language of Chichewa, even though it meant having to learn it for his part (to the untrained ears of this American critic, it sounds as if Ejiofor has been speaking the language all his life). He instructed cinematographer Bill Pope to capture the sunshine as it poured over the fields, and focus on the light that filters into the Kamkwamba family home, even when circumstances grow more dire. He organically frames the story in the history of its culture, presenting local traditions (such as the Gule Wamkulu’s carnival-esque death ritual) with quiet reverence, and not the manufactured wonder of a filmmaker watering things down for a Western audience. When Trywell breaks down and begs to know “When do we stop losing?,” there’s a palpable understanding of what has been taken away from him.
Again, however, this is not Trywell’s film. It belongs to his brilliant son, whose trajectory bypasses the heart of the matter. William Kamkwamba is a remarkable human being who possesses an aptitude and resilience that most of us will only get to see by watching movies like this, but Ejiofor is mostly interested in the things that come easy to him, and “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” slows and loses its emotional grip when it hones in on the science-driven action promised by its title. The finale should be a moment of great triumph — and, on an intellectual level, it definitely is — but Ejiofor’s debut resolves with a matter-of-factness that mutes the power of what came before it. It leaves you feeling like an inspirational story has been told at the expense of a good one.