Beasts of No Nation
BEASTS OF NO NATION, drama, not rated, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
Beasts of No Nation begins with Agu’s (Abraham Attah) boyish schemes to make money and his hilarious pranks with his older brother — all of this is almost too charming, so you just know the happiness won’t last. Agu’s unnamed West African country is in the midst of civil war, but he tells us his town is safe because Nigerian soldiers are protecting it. Civil war, however, is about as easy to contain as a midsummer forest fire. Soon, Agu’s father and older brother must stay in town to protect their land while his mother and younger siblings are packed off to the city. Agu is left behind only because there’s no room for him in the taxi.
In a scene that is at once searing and matter-of-fact, government forces shoot down Agu’s father and brother while Agu flees into the jungle. There he is captured by rebels and trained to become a child soldier. At first, a deputy tells the warlord Commandant (Idris Elba) that Agu is only a boy, but the Commandant disagrees: Agu has hands and fingers with which to pull a trigger. Agu will use his hands for much more in this riveting film. The son of a caring schoolteacher, Agu is now indoctrinated to be a killer. The Commandant tells Agu he will be a leader one day and he is like a son to him, but these are only words. Agu replies that he is a follower — and that’s the truth.
According to the International Labor Organization, recruiting children for armed conflict is comparable to slavery and prostitution. Child soldiers are recruited precisely because they are vulnerable. When they are separated from their families, not to mention hungry, confused, and angry, promises to give them shelter and to avenge the death of their family members are used to ensnare — and eventually to exploit — these children. Agu’s Commandant breaks with the rebels’ political head and runs out of resources for his unit, but he still makes fun of his young soldiers when they try to leave. He taunts them that they will be tried for war crimes, or they will find themselves standing in unbearably long unemployment lines.
Agu meets a better end in this film than many child soldiers do. Despite the painful backdrop of war, director Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) shapes Uzodinma Iweala’s novel into a powerful film with high production values. Agu gives a naturalistic performance, a nice foil to the Commandant’s larger-than-life persona. Before Agu’s mother left in a taxicab for the city, she told him to pray everyday. As a seasoned child soldier, in a lyrical voiceover Agu tells his mother that he’ll stop speaking to God, because he’s not sure if God is listening, but he’ll speak to her instead. According to Agu, he wants to “cover up the sun” so there will be no light to see the dark things that go on during war. Beasts of No Nation, thankfully, lights up the machinations of war and the lives of Agu and the estimated quarter million child soldiers worldwide. — Priyanka Kumar
Coming of age: Abraham Attah and Idris Elba