‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’ Review: Saving a Village, Using Books and Brains

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” the directing debut of the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, is so worthy, so earnest and so achingly sincere that it’s almost painful to criticize. Yet even if you know nothing of its real-life hero, the Malawian engineer William Kamkwamba (whose 2009 memoir was the basis for this dramatization), you will know exactly where this well-intentioned tale is going: it’s right there in the title.

We’re introduced to 13-year-old William (the delightful Maxwell Simba) in 2001, in his village in rural Malawi where lengthening cycles of drought and heavy rains are making harvests increasingly precarious. His parents, Trywell (Ejiofor, terrific as always) and Agnes (an affecting Aïssa Maïga), are determined to give their children an education. But when they’re unable to pay William’s school tuition, the boy — whose aptitude for fixing small appliances is already evident — takes to the library to teach himself. It’s not long before he’s fending off famine by repurposing scrap metal and bicycle parts into an ingenious irrigation system.

Though hobbled by an obviousness that dampens any suspense, this sensitive, environmentally concerned movie is most successful when steeped in the particularities of its location. Corrupt politicians and predatory corporations use climate anxiety and falling grain prices as levers to further their own agendas. And as food supplies dwindle and Trywell’s neighbors succumb to buyouts and looters, the movie pulls inward, focusing its tug between tradition and modernity in Trywell’s resistance to his son’s fantastical-seeming plan.

Challenging the story’s tonal monotony, Dick Pope’s cinematography is clean and unshowy, highlighting faces slowly sinking from hunger and fields turning all too quickly to dust. William’s experiment might end happily, but the suffering it alleviated is unlikely to do the same.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Movie data powered by IMDb.com

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes.

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