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'Beasts of No Nation': Searing look at child soldiers

Like a lot of of boys, Agu is good at playing war. He's got the helmet, he's got the combat boots. Unlike most kids, though, the weapon he's lugging around in Cary Joji Fukunaga's brutal and beautiful Beasts of No Nation happens to be real.

Idris Elba and Abraham Attah in the Netflix original film "Beasts of No Nation." (TNS/Netflix)
Idris Elba and Abraham Attah in the Netflix original film "Beasts of No Nation." (TNS/Netflix)Read moreTNS

Like a lot of of boys, Agu is good at playing war. He's got the helmet, he's got the combat boots. Unlike most kids, though, the weapon he's lugging around in Cary Joji Fukunaga's brutal and beautiful Beasts of No Nation happens to be real.

Adapted from Uzodinma Iweala's 2005 novel about child soldiers in Africa, the film - the first feature to be acquired by Netflix, and launched Friday on the streaming platform that brought us House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black in tandem with Oscar-qualifying runs in select theaters - takes a hard look at the carnage and chaos that has riven the continent. The country goes unnamed, the warring factions aren't always clear, but the nightmarish exploitation of children is made specific in the most vivid, visceral ways.

On the run when the village where he lives is attacked by troops from a military junta, Agu (the remarkable Ghanian teen Abraham Attah) wanders in the wild, hungry and afraid, until he is discovered by a ragtag rebel battalion. Their leader, the Commandant (Idris Elba), wears the stars of a general on his beret, puffs on big cigarettes, and gives Agu the chance to join his fighters. All the boy has to do is bring a machete down on the head of a captive, an engineering student pulled from a convoy, who the Commandant tells Agu was responsible for killing his family.

Beasts of No Nation plays like some horrific cross between Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness, but with the sweeping vistas and saturated colors that have become a trademark of Fukunaga's films. (The director's brilliant 2009 debut, Sin Nombre, followed a Honduran teen as she winds her way through Central America trying to cross into the States. One of its main characters is a young boy sucked into a world of gang violence.)

Beasts of No Nation is a story of lost innocence, raging bloodshed, and maybe, just maybe, of the resilience of youth. Fukunaga, who trained the same cinematic eye on his tale of ritual killing in the Louisiana swamps in the first season of HBO's True Detective, contrasts a world of natural beauty (and even the beauty in a battle trench filled with mud) with a world of unspeakable crimes.

It is a world where kids don't belong - and where kids find themselves caught in the maelstrom and the madness.

srea@phillynews.com

215-854-5629

@Steven_Rea

Beasts of No Nation *** (Out of four stars)

StartText

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga.

With Abraham Attah and Idris Elba. Distributed by Bleecker Street Films.

Running time: 2 hours, 17 mins.

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (graphic violence, profanity, adult themes).

Playing at: Ritz Five. EndText

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