'Beasts of No Nation' is a humane and uncompromising portrait of one boy's experience as a child soldier in an unnamed African country. Tough to watch, it's violent and pulls no punches. You want it to be hard to imagine, but actually it's everything you'd imagine: civil war, family break-up, isolation, indoctrination, murder and rape. They're all here.
Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga ('Sin Nombre', TV's 'True Detective'), 'Beasts' is made with verve, fragmented and nightmarish, and blessed with the poetic rhythms of a version of English ('small-small') that's mesmerising and alienating. But for all its many qualities, 'Beasts' still struggles from a lack of both tight focus and a unique perspective, and it feels a little overlong and flagging in its later scenes.
Still, we get two unforgettable performances. The first is from Abraham Attah as young Agu, a boy who retains his compassion even through the worst degradation imaginable. The other is from Idris Elba as the Commandant, the leader of a rogue rebel battallion (although they're probably all rogue) staffed almost entirely by children, high on drugs and exploited for sex. Elba's creation is a monster but he wisely plays it down; his actions are monstrous enough. Not that he's quiet: he dances, he gives wild speeches, he's the loosest of cannons.
Fukunaga bases his story on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala, and there are many stand-out scenes. There's an episode when the boys take hallucinogens and all the foliage onscreen turns pink (surely inspired by the Irish artist Richard Mosse's Eastern Congo-set 2013 film installation which uses the same technique). Violence and sex are wisely filtered: horrific but measured, part of these kids' warped everyday experience. The film has a sense of scale to it, judiciously used, that has eluded recent African films on the same topic, namely 'Johnny Mad Dog' and 'Ezra'. But the overall impact is more emotional than intellectual. To its credit, it feels more soulful and instinctive than many 'issue' films – even if Agu's experience ends up feeling oddly distant considering the time we've spent up close, sharing his personal nightmare.