Similar to Cary Joji Fukunaga's first film, 2009's haunting "Sin Nombre," which focused on two different groups of people trying to cross the U.S./Mexico border, "Beasts of No Nation," about child soldiers in an unnamed African country (it's left purposefully vague, but was filmed in Ghana) shows us what happens to people handed choiceless choices. And Fukunaga's focus on young people specifically makes the severity of the consequences even more intense—emotionally devastating stories of border crossing and war are enhanced when our characters are essentially children.
In other words, he really fucks with the viewer's head. Not only are we rooting for an underdog to win but at times, it can feel as though we're watching our inner child deal with very real, very violent, horrible things: Dark, lush forest floors bear witness to atrocity; there is an entire scene where the world is colored in a pale red, implying bloodshed. It's a juxtaposition of beauty and horror, innocence and evil, that moves through much of the film.
On the surface, "Beasts of No Nation" is just another movie about war in Africa, informed by shorthand portrayals of Africa—not a specific country or region but just Africa—which are not only racist and colonialist, but rather boring. But there is more integrity here and that integrity, coupled with strong performances, makes this an often remarkable film that counters some of the African war cliches. Part of this is due to the novel the script is based on, a novel of the same name (a reference to a Fela Kuti album) by Nigerian-born, Harvard-educated author Uzodinma Iweala. And Iweala's ability in the book to unravel the humanity of a child soldier—an archetype too often reduced to a statistic, pitied but never fully explored, is important to how "Beasts of No Nation" unfolds.
From the moment we are introduced to Agu (Abraham Attah) and his gang of bored friends wandering around their community trying to sell "Imagination TV" (a broken television that Agu's friends dance and re-enact shows behind), we're taken in by his charm and heartened by what we know he will endure amid senseless war (at one point, Agu even asks the sun, "Why do you continue to shine on us?"). When Agu is captured he goes through initiation: Rituals involving body modification, singing, and burnt herbs indoctrinate the new recruits to the Commandant, played by Idris Elba, who becomes a kind of God among the boys.
Commandant is the leader of one small part of a larger group of rebel forces and Elba presents Commandant as a textbook villain. He is a charming predator, who can only garner respect from young boys without families. His character thrives in the conditions that war creates—desperation and isolation—and wilts in the presence of his superiors. But aside from a few moments of humanity which are instantly revealed to be nothing more than a trick to keep his child soldiers in line, Elba's performance is just efficient—he gets in and out of a scene respectfully as if he knows this film is not really about him as much as it's about Agu and his development.
At the start of the film Agu is a boy with two very loving and present parents, a senile grandfather, a sex-crazed older brother, and a baby sister. By the end of the film, we don't know who he is anymore and neither does Agu. But that's what war does. There is a scene toward the end of the film where Agu wanders around the camp looking for bullets that best illustrates his change. His pants, which are too big, hang off his waist, his bird-like chest shines with sweat from the massive gun he carries, and he puffs on a joint. The scene culminates with Agu in front of Commandant, who has nothing but the same rhetoric (at this point, he can't even provide ammunition), and Agu makes his decision to leave. His face expresses a loss of respect for Commandant and a lack of fear. It's as if a light switch has finally turned on as he realizes he doesn't have to stay here.
It's the subtlety Attah brings to a scene like this that prevents "Beasts of No Nation" from being just another tale about war in a nameless African country. Elba is outshone by Attah in "Beasts of No Nation." What would another actor would have done with the role of the Commandant? There are moments where it feels as if Idris only signed up to provide some star power to an art film and perhaps, to be part of movie history when historians muse on how "Beasts of No Nation" marked the moment when Netflix effectively replaced the act of "going to the movies." This Netflix-produced film has garnered most of it publicity by being the first feature film produced by the streaming service to be released simultaneously online and in theaters. Obviously, the film has had more success online: Why should anyone go to a $10 movie when they can Netflix and chill? Watching it on a small screen did not take away from its visual splendor, the immediacy of the performances, and may actually make viewers feel more at ease when they cry at Agu being separated from his mother as war draws closer to their town.