William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba) was a school-aged boy whose studies brought windmills and year-round electricity to his remote farming village in the African country of Malawi. You can find the real William’s TED Talk online; his autobiography, upon which the film is based, also is widely available. It’s a testament to the power of schooling and self-driven learning. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind does an adequate job of conveying Kamkwamba’s story in a visually stirring way but never rises above the construction of its tried-and-true story.
Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor makes his directorial debut here but does double-duty on screen as William’s father, Trywell. He’s the most interesting character in the movie, a uneducated farmer who has to deal with social unrest and trying to make ends meet while making the best futures possible for his children. It’s a little bit of a shame the movie has to focus on William, who is not disinteresting; however, the movie really picks up when Trywell is trying to keep his family alive or when he is interacting with the swiftly changing culture around him.
The film also follows William’s siblings as they follow their own paths through the world. His sister Agnes (Aïssa Maïga) experiences tribulations in a blossoming relationship with a local teacher, Mike (Lemogang Tsipa). It can’t be said that Ejiofor’s direction & Williams’ script isn’t thoughtful or thorough. It conveys Malawi with tenderness and a clear, detailed eye.
But it never picks up as a particularly propulsive or suspenseful narrative. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind might be the right kind of film to show a group of elementary- or middle-school students in social studies or science classrooms to emphasize either the cultural or scientific elements, respectfully. It feels like the kind of movie I would’ve watched around that age and enjoyed quite a bit. I hope it finds life for that kind of audience.
It’s a coup for Netflix in that it’s another good, but maybe not great, movie that gives some prestige to their service. But it will mostly just disappear — being the algorithmic front-facing screen for most users whom the computer deems more interested in streaming shows and low-grade bullshit.