Sunday, October 9, 2016

Queen Of Katwe Has Absolutely No Trouble Lifting One's Spirit

I am very much upfront about not being a sports guy myself but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy plenty of good sports movies. The key of course, like a large number of other mediums of cinematic storytelling, is to make the character key and central, the sport the individuals actually play in the plot services the characters and not the other way round. That's why Rocky, for instance, is a fantastic movie for both boxing fanatics and people like me that have never watched a second of an actual boxing match. While the debate rages on whether or not chess qualifies as a sport, the film Queen Of Katwe, the newest directorial effort from Mira Nair, once again proves how important interesting lead characters can be to a film, as the world of chess becomes just one part of the tale of a girl becoming herself amidst newfound worlds and interests.

There's not a lot of variety to be found in the life of Katwe resident Phiona (Madina Nalwanga). She's trying to help her mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) try to make ends meet by selling maize to anyone that'll accept in. But in Katwe, a small organization dedicated to giving youngsters a place to play chess has been formed by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Chess is something Phiona has zero experience with, but she finds herself entranced by the game and finds herself learning more and more about chess under the supervision of Robert Katende.

It's not long before Phiona reveals herself to be a prodigy of sorts in the world of chess, her mind being able to predict her opponents moves long before they occur. Such a talent can't be confined to just Katwe for long and soon Phiona finds herself competing in high-profile chess competitions in locations she could only dream of going to before. Now, these major chess-centric set pieces get ample screen time to be sure, but the screenplay by William Wheeler has the majority of Queen Of Katwe focusing on how these new developments impact Phiona and her troubled family.

Finding a gift in the world of chess doesn't immediately wash away the numerous problems Nakku encounters on a day-to-day basis trying to take care of her family as a single mother. It's a refreshingly stark element to incorporate into the realm of inspirational sports movies that typically take the route of sappy sentimentality at the expense of delving into the complexities of reality. Of course, washing away all traces of the hardship life brings is most certainly not the storytelling avenue Queen Of Katwe travels down, instead delving into how this newfound expertise affects Phiona's psyche (overconfidence and a massive compulsion to garner money for her family soon develop in her demeanor). The script is certainly far from perfect (for instance, it feels at times like the movie is straining, with offhand pieces of dialogue, for Phiona's brother, a fellow chess player, to still have something to do in these big chess tournaments), but those kind of foibles come off as mostly just finicky in nature all things considered.

It helps that the stories concentration on the struggles faced by Phionna and her family are put on the shoulders of Madina Nalwanga, who handles such storytelling content quite well in her lead turn.  She is joined by two actors giving particularly exceptional performances, Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo, Nyong'o (in, shockingly, only her second live-action film role since she burst onto the scene in 12 Years A Slave) shows off a rare capability to convey equal parts anguish and determination in her body language and interactions with other characters, I love that she's constantly translating the characters extensive experience with hardship in her performance, while on the flip side of things, David Oyelowo makes for a perfect kind-hearted mentor figure for Phiona to look up to in the world of chess and beyond. I really wish both Nyong'o and Oyelewo would show up in more motion pictures because Queen Of Katwe makes an exceptional case for both individuals talents in their craft.

It's pretty easy to see that the whole point of these inspirational sports movies, particularly the kind distributor Disney (which produced Queen Of Katwe) have been putting out since Remember The Titans turned these projects into big moneymakers at the turn of the century, is to leave the audience with a warm feeling in their hearts, a sense of inspiration in their souls. A lot of these films though (like the tedious 2014 Disney sports movie effort Million Dollar Arm) sacrifice depth for heaps of unearned saccharine sequences. How nice it is then to see Queen Of Katwe  excel in both stirring emotional content as well as being an engaging character study of one girl's adjustement to becoming more than she or her mother could have ever imagined. Plus, you got some seriously powerful acting to bring that introspective nature of the movies script to life. No wonder Queen Of Katwe is such a winner through and through.

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