Child actors are a dime a dozen, yet Abraham Attah is something else. He transcends the category and remains such a demanding presence throughout the entire film, matching even Idris Elba's poise. His character's transformation is just one of the remarkable feats of storytelling that Beasts of No Nation graces us. A gripping account of modern day war seen through a child's eyes, Beasts of No Nation is easily one of the best of the year.
The first thing you'll notice is how beautiful the film is. The stark landscapes of West Africa draw you in, and the color palette for the film is quite something. Director and cinematographer Cary Fukunaga makes sure you remember the reality of this not-so-fictional story, paralleling Agu's family life and how his world was flipped upside down when he joined a group of mercenary fighters. Initially, Agu has no choice and uses them as an escape and a way to reunite with his mother, but the ruthless commandant (Elba) changes him.
The writing is fantastic as you see the war through Agu's eyes, and it's not pretty. This kind of situation is almost completely unfamiliar for most audiences, and Fukunaga manages to supplement fear for grace. He never lets us forget the harsh realities of war, touching on familiar themes like family but going a step further by making it personal for Agu. As the film is his story through and through, the adult details of war are kept to a minimum. The audience is just like Agu, unaware of exactly why there is fighting but rolling with it because it's his only choice. There's no strategic battle scenes, no planning on a map or signing peace treaties, as we are thrust into moments just like Agu is.
When the violence does break out, it's brutal and harrowing. Young actor Attah is ferocious yet sympathetic, and he brings these battle sequences down to earth. The creative risks that Fukunaga takes with these sequences might come across as pandering, yet they make sense cinematically and come across as action poetry. There's a certain lyricism to the war torn villages and jungles of the continent, and it's beautiful and unforgettable.
There isn't much dialogue in the film, but when there is it's brilliant. The unnamed commandant's ideology becomes clearer as the film goes on, and it reaches a disturbing peak. Fukunaga contrasts him with the initially innocent Agu and the two are at odds yet retain respect for one another. There are times when Agu could simply point a gun at the commandant and be done with it, but there's a humanity to the film that respects all lives. War isn't pretty, and Beasts of No Nation knows that. Yet this risky piece of entertainment remembers to be a film first and everything else second. The result is a rhythmic work of art with one of the best young performances I've seen.