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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Movie Review - Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe (2016)
Starring Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, and Lupita Nyong'o 
Directed by Mira Nair
***This film is currently streaming on Netflix***

Ten year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) lives a difficult life in one of the poorer sections of Kampala, Uganda.  With her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o) raising Phiona and her three siblings on her own, the wise-beyond-her-years Phiona often spends her days doing what she can to give her mother as much assistance as possible.  One afternoon, however, she stumbles upon a missionary program headed by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) that teaches young Ugandan children how to play chess.  Feeling out of place and a bit guilty for slacking when it comes to helping her mother, Phiona finds it difficult to initially fit in, but Robert soon discovers that Phiona is incredibly talented when it comes to the strategic game of chess and he must struggle to help her realize her full potential.

Thus is the true story of Queen of Katwe -- a well-acted, well-directed, and modest little film that weaves a tale that feels familiar, yet foreign.  The foreignness stems from this taking place in Uganda, a place where admittedly us Westerners are innately unfamiliar.  Director Mira Nair uses the Ugandan landscape to help fully develop her characters in ways that aren't all that common in a PG-rated film about sports.  And yet it's that commonality of being a "sports film" that weighs down Queen of Katwe and doesn't allow it to really expand into something breathtaking or stunning.

Although it's unable to escape the clichés inherent in its genre, there are some great performances that more than lift Queen of Katwe into something that's worth a look.  As the adults in the piece, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o provide solid anchors for the cast of completely unknown young actors to play off.  Front and center through it all is Madina Nalwanga as Phiona who more than captures the struggles facing poor Ugandan youth and the joy that triumphing against adversity can bring.  It's the performances here that make this film better than its average script allows.  Nair's film could've used a few more edits -- it slogs a bit in the middle with some repetitive moments that really don't add to the characters who were well-established in the first act -- but Queen of Katwe still works for the most part.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

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