Three feel-good/ coming-of-age films from around the world

In October 2014, I wrote about a new crop of ‘coming-of-age’ films that were launchpads for future movie stars. The movies I covered in that post featured actors like Ellen Page, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller. More than two years later, all of their faces would be recognized by most movie goers and they are all getting opportunities to work on bigger (not necessarily better!) movie projects.

In the past few days, I’ve watched four very different coming-of-age films. One of them is Moonlight, which I wrote about earlier today. The other three are set in three different continents – Africa, Asia and Australia – and feature young protagonists who overcome social and cultural barriers to achieve their dreams. Although one might say that the challenges of growing up are universal across cultures, these films showcase those challenges in the unique framework of each culture (African, Indian and New Zealander).

Queen of Katwe

This is as much a coming-of-age story as an inspirational sports drama. Set in Uganda and based on true events, Queen of Katwe tells the feel-good story of a 10-year-old girl Phiona Mutesi who goes from a life of poverty in the slum of Katwe to becoming one of the first female players in Uganda to be awarded a FIDE title. The film is directed by Mira Nair and is anchored by two well-known actors of African origin – David Oyelowo (Nigerian parents) and Lupita Nyong’o (Kenyan parents). Oyelowo plays the coach who teaches slum kids chess as part of a missionary outreach program. And Nyong’o plays Phiona’s mother, a single parent who strives hard to keep her dignity while raising her kids in dire poverty. The star of the film of course is first-time actress Madina Nalwanga who plays Phiona, with great spirit and authenticity…well she would, she herself comes from a poor neighborhood of Kampala and grew up struggling to make ends meet. The film chronicles the many trials – both physical and emotional – that Phiona has to go through before she can realize her potential.

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Very similar thematically to Queen of Katwe is Indian crowd-pleaser Dangal (“wrestling competition”), the latest film from producer-actor Aamir Khan. This too is based on a real-life story, of two sisters Geeta and Babita, from a conservative part of India who are coached by their ex-wrestler father to become world-class wrestlers, eventually winning gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. The film is marketed as an inspirational sports drama, but it is as much a story of the girls’ rite of passage…dealing with teenage angst, rebelliousness and search for identity, they also have to manage the physical rigors of training and the emotional expectations of their father. The movie features standout performances from the young actresses who play the two sisters as pre-teens and as teenagers; Geeta is played by Zaira Wasim and Fatima Shaikh; Babita is played by Suhani Bhatnagar and Sanya Malhotra. Like all good Indian melodramas, there are equal measures of laughter, tears, drama and intense emotion.

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Last but not least comes this quirky film from New Zealand. Billed as a comedy, it’s another feel-good story anchored by a respected actor (Sam Neill from Jurassic Park) and featuring an eye-catching and assured performance from a young talent (14-year-old Julian Dennison). Released in NZ in March 2016, it went on to become the highest grossing local film, has a Metacritic score of 81 and has picked up various awards at film festivals around the world. Dennison plays a troubled juvenile delinquent, Ricky who is assigned a foster home in a remote ranch managed by the affectionate Bella and her grouchy husband Hec. After some initial issues, Ricky settles in and builds a strong bond with Bella. But then she unexpectedly passes away and Ricky learns that child welfare services are coming to take him away again, because he cannot be in a home without a female guardian. Ricky and Hec, who initially dislike each other, end up going into the wild bushland and spend 4 months on the run from a comically evil child welfare worker and a posse of law enforcement officials. During this time, the young boy learns to take on responsibility and the old man gets some of his rough edges smoothed off. Eventually the chase comes to an end and Ricky is back in the hands of child welfare and Hec is stuck in an old-age home. But soon after, Ricky finds a new foster family and he asks Hec to join them and go back to the bush for some new adventures. Director Taika Waititi handles action and comedy with equal ease and so I am looking forward to seeing him apply that wry comic sensibility to the relationship between Thor and the Hulk in his next film Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel Studios!

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