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Movie Review

One fateful night in Egypt, Pharoah has a dream. He dreams of fat cows and skinny ones—a dream that a prisoner named Joseph interprets as a foretelling of famine. Forewarned, Pharoah uses seasons of plenty to prepare for seasons of want, and puts Joseph in charge of the whole shebang. Preparing for the famine to come requires plenty of work and some sacrifice. But that preparation saves countless lives.

Trywell Kamkwamba has a dream, too. A different sort of dream.

For years, Trywell has farmed a patch of land in a dusty corner of Malawi—land once owned by his brother, now owned by his nephew. He beats away at the dust and dirt, digging rows and planting seeds and, of course, looking toward the sky for signs of rain. He, like Joseph, knows more than he'd like to about seasons of plenty and want. He knows how much he and his family depend on the rain.

But Trywell dreams of something else for his children. He and his wife, Agnes, pour money into their kids' education, and it seems like their investment is beginning to pay off. Their oldest, daughter, Annie, is on track to go to university soon. His middle child, 13-year-old William, attends a nearby school—a pricey one, yes, but well worth the cash. Already, William's fixing up his neighbors' radios in his spare time.

Yes, Trywell knows the value of education. And a little schooling may help safeguard his children against those inevitable seasons of want.

But neither he, nor anyone in his village, dreamed how soon those seasons would come.

It's 2001, and Trywell's nephew and landlord decides to sell the trees growing on his land. Sure, the trees help protect it from flooding. But the nephew needs cash, and the government's paying plenty. He sees little sense on wasting good land, and good lumber, to protect against a flood that might never come.

But it does come. The rainswollen waters turn the land to mud, sweeping away seeds and rotting the fledgling crops. Then the destructive downpour stops, and the soil turns to sand, parched and pale. The harvest is pitiful. The threat of famine is real. But the government, embroiled in another corrupt election season, is far more interested in protecting its reputation than it is helping out its poor, rural citizens.

No one dreamed that 2001 would mark the beginning of a crippling famine in Malawi. No one dreamed of how necessary those trees might be. No one stored seven years worth of grain. Now the land is desolate and its people desperate. Disaster and death seem just weeks or, at best, months away. It's time to flee or die.

But William, Trywell's 13-year-old boy, has a dream—a dream of turning wind into water. And perhaps with lots of work and some sacrifice, he just might make his audacious dream come true.

Positive Elements

Trywell never claimed to be brilliant (though his wife reminds him that he was clever enough to find her). But he's as principled as they come. He begs his nephew to support the local chief and leave the trees on the land. But when the nephew sells off the trees anyway, Trywell refuses to cast blame or sink into bitterness. He keeps doing everything he can to give his children the education he believes they'll need in the future. And he's scrupulously honest—so much so that an old friend of his jokes that they used to call him the Pope. "He was the most honest man [in the market they used to do business in]," the friend tells William. And with a laugh, the man adds, "What good can come of an honest businessman?"

William, in some ways, is not quite as honest as his pops (as we'll see). But he has inherited his father's sense of principle. When his friends encourage him to run away from his family and starving village, William refuses—even when his father belittles William's potentially life-changing invention.

Indeed, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind offers an interesting case study in ethics: Even though William's ideas are set firmly in the technological future, his values—and those of many of the villagers—are still rooted in the traditional mores of his family and community. Agnes echoes a similar point, saying of the value her forebears placed on family and community, "The ancestors survived because they stayed together."

Spiritual Content

Agnes also describes how her ancestors used to pray for rain—a practice she and Trywell have abandoned. "We said we would never pray for rain, like our ancestors," she says, apparently considering such prayers to be desperate and perhaps weak. In fact, when Trywell does begin to pray for rain before a sparse meal, Agnes tells him to shush.

This avoidance of prayer for rain, oddly, doesn't seem to be rooted in a rejection of faith. Trywell and his family are clearly Christians. A cross hangs inside their house; and, in better times, Trywell prays over their food, thanking God for "all these blessings" and asking for strength to endure inevitable hardships. "In Jesus' name, amen," he finishes. A Christian priest presides over the funeral of Trywell's brother.

But Trywell's community is a religiously mixed one, too. When another important figure in the community dies, he's buried in an Islamic ceremony. (Christians and Muslims respectfully attend both funerals.) And both religions are seasoned with a traditional African ceremony rooted in the region's pre-Christian belief system known as the "gule wamkulu."

A fixture for many in central and southern Africa, the gule wamkulu, or "big dance," is practiced by a "secret" society that embodies and preserves many traditional spiritual beliefs. They wear elaborate costumes and masks, and in this film they seem to serve almost a symbolic purpose: preserving a traditional culture from the assault of modern forces that often corrupt the land and tear the people apart.

The film closes with a quote: "God is as the wind, which touches everything."

Sexual Content

William's sister, Annie, has a secret paramour: William's young science teacher, Mr. Kachigunda. They walk home together and kiss, and they talk about running off and getting married.

This all is pretty significant, given that courtship here feels almost Victorian: What to a Western eye might look simply like two people dating takes on greater cultural significance in this East African nation. Thus, Annie hides the relationship from her parents, even lying to her mom when the older woman pointedly asks Annie if anyone's "been talking" to her. When the relationship is discovered by various parties, there's much fretting over whether Mr. Kachigunda will "disgrace" her. The suggestive implications are obvious, if if they're never clearly spelled out.

[Spoiler Warning] Eventually, Annie and Kachigunda do run off together (Annie writes a note suggesting that her departure will be a blessing, given that it's "one less mouth to feed"), get married and have a family.

William gets access to what seems like a literal boys' club, where young men hang out, listen to sports and tell stories. In fact, when William first enters the room, one person there seems to be regaling his fellows about his latest supposed female conquest. The storyteller wants William to leave, fearing the details will corrupt his 13-year-old ears: "What do you know about women?" the youth asks. "I know everything that you know," William says, suggesting that the guy knows nothing about women.

Violent Content

When someone at a political rally suggests that the village may not vote for the ruling party unless it's given some aid during the impending famine, the elderly man is escorted off stage and is secretly, brutally beaten. We see him kicked repeatedly. When his attackers finally stop, his face is covered in blood, and he's nearly unconscious. Elsewhere, guns are fired up in the air by the politician's security personnel, dispersing the rally.

A man dies, apparently of natural causes. Another person seems to linger for months before also succumbing to a death everyone knows is inevitable. A dog dies from hunger, and we see its corpse.

Trywell sees hungry people in the field, fighting over food and perhaps killing each other. (We briefly see what seems to be a machete being raised.) At a government food warehouse, hungry grain buyers seem on the verge of rioting when told there's not enough grain for everybody: The lucky few who get grain are told they'll have to make a run for it. William, who snuck in just in time, is forced to sneak out a back way to keep his precious grain safe. William also catches and kills a bird in order to get access to the boys' club mentioned above.

Hungry men invade the Kamkwambas' property. They forcibly steal grain from Agnes and from the home's storehouse. Trywell, away at a political rally, comes home to find his wife and daughter Annie very distraught. Later, Annie blames her father's absence for the invasion. "We could've been raped and killed!" she wails. Her mother slaps Annie across her face. "You think I'd let you starve to death?" Agnes says. "When I cut off my own arm to feed you, then you'll know that you're my child."

A group of boys and young men surround Trywell, prepared to fight him for his bike. (Trywell brandishes a farming implement to fend them off.) Trywell threatens to break William's neck if he feeds precious food to a dog.

Crude or Profane Language

Two uses of the s-word. We also hear "d--n" and "h---" once each.

Drug and Alcohol Content

None.

Other Negative Elements

William learns that Annie's stepping out with a beau, and he uses that knowledge to blackmail both of them (albeit for important, life-saving reasons). When William's kicked out of school because his parents can no longer pay his fees, his science teacher, Mr. Kachigunda, lies to give William access to the school library anyway (an area that's typically off-limits to nonstudents). The librarian seems to know that he's lying, but goes along with the ruse—telling William to not sit by a window, lest anyone walk by and spot him.

William and Trywell argue about William's dream of designing a machine that'll help them grow food during the dry season. Trywell calls it "stupidity" and demands that William work with him in the fields. William, now desperate to build his machine (and perhaps save the lives of everyone in the village) confronts his father in a way that, to Trywell, likely feels deeply dishonoring.

We see government agents, school officials and villagers act selfishly and without much foresight.

Conclusion

William's dream—the dream of turning wind into water—did indeed come true. The movie's title spoils that fact right up front. It a story based on the real William Kamkwamba, who became something of a celebrity in Malawi and eventually went to Dartmouth University.

This a pretty inspirational story, too, one that's augmented by the film's realistic atmosphere. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (the first directorial effort from star Chiwetel Ejiofor) invites us deep into rural Malawi, a world very few of us likely know much about. It gives us a sense of the region's poverty and dignity, along with the natural tension between centuries-old traditions and the push toward modernity. And most critically, the film helps us feel what it must be like to be so dependent on the rains: If they come too soon or too late, too strong or too weak, everything could be upended.

The dialogue adds to the realism here. Malawi has two official languages—English and Chewa—and most of the dialogue is in the latter (with subtitles scrawling underneath). But that also adds to the film's problems, as the film's two s-words are spoken in Chewa but dutifully subtitled.

But outside that sporadic use of profanity, as well as some painful scenes that underline Malawi's food insecurity and political unrest, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is remarkably clean and nicely affecting. (You can also read our review of the book here.) And the father-son relationship here—while difficult at times—ultimately stresses two biblical teachings. Children, obey your parents; fathers, do not exasperate your children.

The night after I watched The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, I was watching a little television. Ad after ad trumpeted how much weight you could lose with this diet plan and that little pill. Most of us know little of food insecurity, much less famine. We take our meals for granted.

Trywell and William knew where their food came from. They knew how hard it was to plant and tend and harvest. And when they prayed before a meal, they had reason to be truly grateful.

William had a dream that many didn't understand, even his father. Parents today can face a similar dilemma. Here are some helpful thoughts from those who have walked this path before:

Middle Schoolers: Let Them push ... But Don’t Let Go

Missions to Manhood

Raising Daughters in God's Wisdom

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Genre

Drama

Author

Cast

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Trywell Kamkwamba; Maxwell Simba as William; Aïssa Maïga as Agnes; Lily Banda as Annie; Lemogang Tsipa as Mike Kachigunda

Director

Chiwetel Ejiofor ( )

Distributor

Netflix

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

March 1, 2019

On Video

March 1, 2019

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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