There are more than 120,000 child soldiers under the age of 17 enlisted in rebel and government fighting forces in West Africa.
Americans may ignore that fact. They may even feel surprised and cite it as a reason why the world sucks.
But “Beasts of No Nation,” a 2015 film written and directed by Cary Fukunaga, is a beautiful and brutal film that reminds people of the troubling fact.
“Beasts of No Nation” is a hard, but worthwhile film to watch as it does more than entertain; it educates and challenges the viewer to empathize.
The film, based on Uzodinma Iweala’s novel by the same name, begins with an honest and universal portrayal of Agu, played by Abraham Attah, a young African boy and his family. Agu is from a family valuing hard work and education, and, although they live in a poor situation, their future is bright.
The portrait of the family is sad, funny, heartwarming and overwhelmingly universal. They are relatable for everyone at some level.
There is the grandfather who suffers from severe dementia, bitter parental arguments and punishment from Agu’s father. There is the mother who works hard to support her daughter. There is the older brother who tries to impress girls with his muscles and dance moves.
Audience can empathize not because of the family’s righteousness, but they see part of themselves in the characters.
Agu’s fate unravels after a report of an upcoming rebel attack reaches the village. Women and children are packed into flat-bed trucks like sardines and sent to a safe village.
To Agu’s misfortune, his father is unable to get him on a truck. He is left to defend the town with other adults.
The next day, the rebels invade and shoot at civilians. Despite Agu escaping to the forest, his father and brother are brutally killed.
In the forest, Agu crossed paths with a ragtag group of young soldiers led by the Commandant, played by Idris Elba, a charismatic leader who supports these young soldiers’ frustration and passion for revenge with guns.
While in the unit, Agu’s youth and childhood are stolen from him as he becomes apathetic and jaded to killing, dead bodies and the destruction of war.
While the directing of this film is bold and beautiful, the heart of this film comes from the writing and performances from Attah, the young and first-time actor, playing Agu and Elba, the experience star, as Commandant.
Attah’s performance wonderfully portrays the transition from a lively child to apathetic war-torn soldier. Attah evokes the most powerful emotion from the audience by his lack of emotion in response to the horrific situation around him.
Elba, when the Commandant, is magically charismatic as he rallies his unit and gives them blind loyalty. Yet Elba also exhibits the character’s weaknesses through jealousy and pedophilia. It makes the audience realize that he too is a pawn like the child soldiers he recruits.
“Beasts of No Nation” is available to stream on Netflix and the first feature release of the company.
But this is a film that does what other ones should do—educate and empathize. The film is beautiful and brutal; it is worth a watch.