Netflix’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells powerful story of survival

March 2019, The Daily Free Press

©Netflix

Finding the line between inspirational and disingenuous is a challenge for any filmmaker. Where is the cutoff between uplifting and insincere, between heartwarming and over-the-top?

There’s almost certainly no clear answer to this question, but “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” a new film from actor-turned-director Chiwetel Ejiofor, toes this line almost perfectly to tell an important and truly inspirational tale.

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and was released on Netflix March 1. The film, based on William Kamkwamba’s autobiography of the same name, centers around Kamkwamba as a child living in the Malawi village of Wimbe and his attempt to bring wind power and, consequently, water, to his family and village.

This is, of course, much easier said than done. William hardly has the materials on hand to build a windmill, and even if he did, the village inhabitants are hesitant to place their life in the hands of the boy who makes toys and fixes radios in his free time.

Even William’s own uneducated father, Trywell Kamkwamba (played by Ejiofor himself), is initially hesitant to trust his son and instead content to helplessly farm the dry land. But Wimbe is facing a famine. The locals call it Njala, translated simply to “hunger.”

The government of Malawi refuses to officially recognize the food crisis, and any aid they do provide is expensive, disorganized and in short supply.

Additionally, at the time of this movie in 2001, the 9/11 attacks on American soil caused world markets to plummet. Hunger leads to riots, and riots lead very quickly to anarchy.

All of these factors bring the citizens of Wimbe to the brink of starvation. Some villagers, William’s sister included, leave the town altogether. Others resort to theft. Others die.

The film juggles so many multifaceted issues, and for a vast majority of the time, it does so successfully. It treats its subject matter with sobering respect, and nothing ever feels too oversimplified.

However, there is a balance to be struck between nuance and simplicity, and the film doesn’t always find it.

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” has a lot to say. It touches on family, global hunger, the flaws of democracy, education, sustainability and so much more.

But each one of those topics could easily fill its own two-hour movie, and one can’t help but feel like “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” has a few too many irons in the fire. It at times feels unfocused, as if the filmmakers were unsure which part of the story was actually the most important.

However, many times the film gets it right, and, when it does, there are some beautiful, profoundly tragic moments on display.

Yes, the film is about overcoming hardship and surviving as a community, but the vast majority of its runtime is rather bleak. Even as the film closes on an undeniably uplifting note, one can’t help but feel the weight of loss from the previous two hours.

Ejiofor, of “12 Years a Slave” fame, doesn’t seems like a first-time director. Many times he is content to leave the camera perfectly still and let the action move in and out of frame at its own speed.

Other times there are beautiful, wide shots of the African countryside that dwarf William, emphasizing the monumental task he faces.

Many of these decisions are those of a veteran director, and the prospect of what Ejiofor will do next behind the camera is already an exciting one. As if writing and directing the film was not enough, however, Ejiofor also gives the best performance in the film with his portrayal of Trywell Kamkwamba.

Trywell is a simple man, caught between two worlds. He shuns the traditions of his ancestors but resorts to praying for rain nonetheless. He cares about nothing more than providing for his family, but he also feels called to leave them and attend political protests.

Ejiofor captures this divide within the character with a brilliant, subdued performance. Trywell rarely loses his temper but when he does, he erupts. Ejiofor’s passionate, heartbroken screaming in these sequences is incredibly powerful.

The other performances in the film are by no means subpar. Newcomer Maxwell Simba, who plays William, gives a phenomenal debut performance. The emotional impact and turmoil of the story is on display in every one of the actors’ performances.

Exploring Trywell’s character a bit more and digging into his relationship with his son could have made for a better story, one that could bring an emotional complexity to a film that’s already intellectually dense.

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is an inspiring, well-made and important film, and there’s no doubt about that. It could benefit from a tighter focus at times, but at its core, it is still a well-told story of what it means to overcome, persevere and, maybe most importantly, survive. 

Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade Captures What It’s Like Growing Up in 2018

April 2018, The Daily Free Press

©Wikimedia Commons

If there’s any stretch of time that nearly everyone might conveniently choose to forget, it’s middle school. Twenty-seven-year-old comedian Bo Burnham’s new film, “Eighth Grade,” doesn’t allow this luxury. It forces you to remember those years, no matter how tragic they may have been.

“Eighth Grade,” which was both written and directed by Burnham, had its New England premiere at the opening of Boston’s 16th annual Independent Film Festival on Wednesday.

The film follows Kayla Day, who, for anyone who came of age in this millennium, is relatable to an almost frustrating extent. Kayla spends most of her free time on her computer, makes YouTube videos in her bedroom that garner a total of three views, and lives her life on and for social media.

Elsie Fisher, who plays Kayla, absolutely carries the film, essentially defining what it means to give a breakout performance. The uniquely adolescent mix of feigned confidence, crushing shyness and palpable anxiety she brings to her character is nothing short of fantastic. When she appeared on stage for a Q&A after the screening, the 15-year-old actress received a well-deserved standing ovation from the opening night audience.

The film follows Kayla as she finishes the eighth grade, learning along the way what it’s like to meet boys, be a high schooler and much more. There’s situation after situation in this film that will feel so familiar to so many people — the only plausible reaction for many will be to curl up in a ball and try to avoid pulling a muscle from cringing so much.

It’s not uncomfortable to the point of being unwatchable, though, and Burnham does an excellent job injecting the scenes with enough comedy and drama to keep them interesting and engaging.

Burnham makes the everyday situation feel like life or death, but never in a way that’s corny or over the top. When Kayla first meets the eyes of the cutest boy in her class, booming, intense music plays, mirroring the eruption of emotions Kayla feels inside. It’s a trope, one seen plenty of times, but it remains fresh and funny here.

The music greatly helps with this effect. Almost all of the soundtrack features heavy electric synthesizers that blast the theater’s speakers with sound. The composer, Anna Meredith, has crafted a soundtrack that’s physically grounded in a sense — there are no plucky strings or soaring melodies meant to play on emotions.

Cinematically, the film is nothing too special, but nothing about it gives any indication that the person behind the camera is a first-time film director. The shots get the job done. The numerous shots of screens and technology look particularly impressive, especially as it’s obvious there weren’t any screen replacements or superimpositions.

Really the only hitch in the film is pacing — the only giveaway that Burnham isn’t as experienced as he seems. The film isn’t too long, and the overall narrative moves along just fine, but some scenes linger a little bit too long. More than once, it feels like the film is simply moving from sequence to sequence with no real connection between them.

Even for those currently in college, for whom eighth grade truly wasn’t that long ago, the film could easily feel as if it’s passed them by. It’s clear that in the film’s writing, Burnham made an effort to actually try to understand what it’s like to be a middle schooler right now, not just what he thinks it’s like or what it was like when he was younger.

Yes, the film is about being an eighth grader, a time that was generally terrible for everyone, but it’s also a film about being an eighth grader right now. It might be more about this time, 2018, than it is about eighth grade at all.

 

There’s a cultural compendium of coming-of-age films that span the decades — films like “The Breakfast Club” or “Stand by Me” that new generations continually discover and identify with. “Eighth Grade” will likely not be one of those films. In fact, it’s not outrageous to say that this film will probably be irrelevant in maybe even less than a year. Some of the jokes and references are already a bit outdated. But this isn’t a detriment to the film in any way. In fact, it speaks volumes about how poignantly and correctly Burnham has captured what it feels like to be living in 2018.

“Eighth Grade” is a film entirely disinterested in nostalgia. It’s relevant, significant and almost cruelly relatable, but there aren’t any rose-colored glasses to be found. It pulls no punches. The film looks its subject matter and setting in the face and calls them out for what they are. It’s a biting, stinging truth about a place and time that all of us would rather forget.

Bojack Horseman Season 4 Review

September 2017, Groundpunch

©Netflix

Since its first season in 2014, the animated Netflix original Bojack Horseman has only gotten better. Featuring a combination of anthropomorphic animals and humans, all of whom are relatively unlikable, the show found its stride near the end of Season 1 and hasn’t looked back since.

When Season 3 left off, Bojack was wandering alone, Mr. Peanutbutter was running for governor, Diane was searching for purpose, Princess Caroline was maintaining a steady relationship, and Todd was— very briefly, anyway— a millionaire. Season 4 picks up a year after this, and finds each of the main characters still dealing with their respective challenges in some way.

The show is just as funny as it has always been. All the favorite joke formats return. Signs with the message as well as the instructions written on them, news ticker headlines, rapid-fire animal jokes in between scenes, unbelievably complex alliteration gags and puns: it’s all there and it’s all hilarious. The pure quantity of visual jokes in this season almost demands a re-watch of every episode. Season 4 also offers political humor in the form of Mr. Peanutbutter’s run for governor, but the creative team never reveal their political leanings too overtly, opting to offer commentary on the absurdity of the recent election cycle and Hollywood’s role in it rather than jokes about any real-life candidate. It’s surprisingly refreshing to have post-election comedy that is more about how crazy the race was than the result.

The show’s cast does fantastic work again as well. From quiet moments to screaming matches and teary-eyed emotional breakdowns, this season had plenty of moments where nuanced performances were needed, and each lead actor stepped up to the plate every time. This season also had its fair share of guest voices, such as Matthew Broderick and Jane Krakowski, who deliver stellar performances and do nothing but add to their respective episodes.

All that said, hilarity has never been Bojack’s primary goal, and many fans of the show don’t love it as much as they do simply because it’s funny. The relentless yet relatable sadness that permeates almost every aspect and character of the show is what draws so many people in, and despite having plenty of lighter episodes, Season 4 embraces this aspect of the show more than ever before.

One of the most interesting things about this season is that it’s not really about Bojack. Yes, he’s always present in some way in every episode, but the show is no longer only about his problems interfering with everyone else’s lives. Instead, most of the main characters have an episode dedicated almost entirely to their owns set of challenges, often with no interference from Bojack at all. Todd learns how to say no to things and begins to explore his asexuality in the third episode, aptly titled “Hooray! A Todd Episode!”. Episode 9, “Ruthie,” is focused on a particularly horrible day in the life of Princess Caroline, and highlights her struggles with her work, family, and relationships. Not every side story in every episode is a hit, and there were plenty of times where I would have rather seen what was going on with Bojack instead of Todd or Diane, but this refocus away from Bojack is a smart and natural move for the show. As these characters grow and change, they face new and different challenges, and there were only so many ways we could see Bojack push people away before it read as stale rather than poignant.

This isn’t to say that Bojack doesn’t have problems of his own this season: Hollyhock, an apparent estranged daughter of Bojack’s with eight adoptive fathers and eight last names, shows up at his doorstep near the beginning of the season. After their DNA is found to be a match, Bojack reluctantly agrees to help Hollyhock search for her mother, even if it includes an embarrassing visit to all of Bojack’s sexual partners from 1999. Hollyhock lives with Bojack for a while, and seeing as Todd has moved out, it’s obvious he’s happy for the company. But, as Hollyhock reminds Bojack many times, she isn’t looking for another dad, she’s looking for her mother and for answers. This smart and believable storyline is one of the season’s strongest; the relationship between the two is well-executed, as Bojack is completely preoccupied with making sure his issues and vices don’t manifest themselves in Hollyhock. This dynamic leads to the season’s best episode: “Stupid Piece of Sh*t.”

Taking place halfway through the season, “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” takes us into Bojack’s head in a way we’ve never been before. as his internal monologue plays for the entire episode. For the first time, we hear his depressive and self-defeating thoughts instead of just seeing them expressed in his actions. Bojack goes the whole episode ridiculing and second guessing himself, and as his thoughts spiral, the animation changes and shows in an almost flimsy, sketchbook style, all the horrible possibilities running through his mind. The episode ends with Hollyhock asking about this voice, and Bojack’s answer to her is one of the most gut-wrenching moments the show has ever had.

This season uses audio and visual cues to represent mental illness in a way that has rarely, if ever, been done before. Bojack’s depressive internal monologue, the high-pitched, muted sounds of a panic attack, and the bright lights and jolted movement of a drug overdose are just a few examples of this. It’s off-putting how real the show makes these problems feel, and the viewer, in some small way, experiences these struggles alongside the characters. 

Throughout the season, Bojack’s mother, Beatrice, also lives with him and Hollyhock due to her recently diagnosed dementia. Beatrice doesn’t recognize Bojack for nearly the entire season, calling him instead by the name of Henrietta, a former housekeeper of the Horseman family. The penultimate episode,“Time’s Arrow,” takes place almost exclusively inside of Beatrice’s head and memories. The scenes fragment and shift, faces are blank or obscured, and objects appear and disappear from the scenes as she remembers or forgets them. Occasionally, Beatrice is pulled back into the current time. It is a chilling and real exploration of memory loss among the elderly, through a character that, like so many on this show, has plenty of established faults. Bojack himself is in no hurry to forgive his mother for the trauma she passed on to him, but as we watch memory begin to slip away, it’s hard not to sympathize with her.

What makes Bojack Horseman stand above other shows that address real, heavy issues like this is that it never offers a solution. Not once do the writers claim to have it figured out. They deliver thoughtful and agonizing one or two sentence lines that are hard to forget, but the show isn’t about fixing anyone. It’s about learning to live with yourself and trying your best to not be miserable while you’re doing it. That’s all any of the characters are trying to do. They’ve come a long way from Season 1, and none of them are fixed or even particularly healthy, but they’re growing, learning, and changing. The season even ends on a happy note— something that, after a handful of episodes that explore deep human sadness, is a great relief.

Nothing quite captures the truth and reality of mental health like Bojack Horseman. It turns impossible-to-explain emotions into words and images that not only make it feel as if someone actually understands, but manages to do so while putting a smile on your face every once in a while too. Season 4 doubles down on the almost oppressive melancholy the show has always carried with it, but supports it with jokes just as good if not better than previous seasons. With another season of the highest quality, Bojack Horseman has cemented itself not only as one of the best animated comedies and Netflix shows around, but as one of the best series currently on television.