Based on the true story of young Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, "Queen of Katwe" is an irresistibly heartwarming fable from "Monsoon Wedding" and "Salaam Bombay!" director Mira Nair. The story -- inspired by sportswriter Tim Crothers's book, which was expanded from his article in ESPN Magazine and adapted for the screen by William Wheeler -- may stick closely to the conventional sports movie template, but you've rarely seen it rendered with such care.
Set in 2007, 9-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) lives in the slums outside of the Ugandan capital of Kampala with her widowed mother, Harriet, and four siblings (Phiona's father passed away from AIDS). She helps to support her family by selling maize on the bustling streets of the village, and she has little reason to believe that she'll ever know anything else in her life. This being a Disney film, Nair's depiction of poverty may gloss over the harsher realities of the characters' lives, but she doesn't shy away from it either.
Salvation arrives in the form of Robert Katende (a warm and charming David Oyelowo), an out of work civil engineer who takes a job with a youth ministry doing sports outreach. He decides to start a chess club for the local children, which Phiona and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) wander into one day. Having dropped out of school, Phiona is unable to read or write, but Katende discovers she has a phenomenal mind for chess as she picks up the game with seemingly little effort. She's able to see eight or nine moves ahead; her preternatural abilities could prove to be a path toward a better life for her and her family. Katende teaches his young students to see the game of chess as a guide to follow in their own lives, applying the game's strategic moves to navigate the many obstacles life will throw in their path.
Harriet isn't thrilled that Phiona and Brian are spending their time learning a silly game instead of earning a living, but Katende wins her over. The coach eventually talks his way into a tournament, where his team must go head-to-head with some fancypants prep school students. But Phiona continues to win, and she's able to travel all over the country -- and eventually, the world -- competing against some of the best adult players on the planet in the World Chess Olympiad in Siberia. As Phiona succeeds, Harriet worries that failure could be all the more devastating for her daughter after she's gotten a taste of a better life, bringing some very real stakes to the film.
As an inspirational story of an underdog triumphing against the odds, "Queen of Katwe" follows the expected formula, but does so with great skill and more intelligence than is typical. Nair has a way with characters; they feel like flesh-and-blood people, and not just pieces to be moved around the film's own chess board. Weaving underlying gender and class issues throughout the film, the director works her audience's emotions without feeling blatantly manipulative -- always a concern in movies of this type. She also manages to make the film's chess sequences riveting, even to someone like me who couldn't explain the rules of the game if you held a gun to my head.
But what truly sets the film apart is its setting: Nair imbues her film with an incredible sense of place. Nair lived in Kampala for many years, and it's evident. (The director still runs a film school in the country, which star Lupita Nyong'o graduated from.) She has a real connection to the community and the country, showing the vitality and energy of the city. The film's world is filled with deeply saturated textures and colors, shown off to great effect in the lovely work from cinematographer Sean Bobbitt.
In her first acting role, Madina Nalwanga is a real find. Like the rest of the children featured in the film, Nalwanga is a native of Katwe, and her immensely likeable, naturalistic performance anchors the film. Lupita Nyong'o delivers a lovely, understated turn in what could have been a thankless role in the wrong hands. After several voice and motion-capture performances, it's her first live-action role since her Oscar-winning turn in "12 Years a Slave." Finally seeing her face on screen again is just one of the film's many pleasures. And between Nyong'o and the charismatic Oyelowo, Nalwanga could hardly have had better mentors to guide her through her first film experience.
A cheerfully positive portrayal of Africa and its people, "Queen of Katwe" is one of the rare stories that's told from their perspective and not of that of an outsider -- thankfully, there's no white savior to be found here. Telling its story with great compassion and perception, "Queen of Katwe" is a feel-good film that's truly inspiring.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including reviews of "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" and a preview of Part I of the Rochester Polish Film Festival.