The story of Agu is fictional, from the character himself to the war-torn country in which he resides. That doesn’t make Agu’s time as a child soldier, which is also the reality for thousands of children in Africa, any more heartbreaking. These child soldiers, typically boys recruited or forced into being part of armed conflicts, have served as the subjects of news reports and documentaries for years; their plight isn’t new information. With Beasts of No Nation, writer/director Cary Fukunaga works to make sure that his audience won’t forget the horrors these children endure.
Beasts of No Nation begins with Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah) living a decent life with his family in a small town in an unnamed country in West Africa. His father is a teacher, his mother spends her days raising Agu’s baby sister, and his older brother spends most of his time working to get the attention of a girl. The family also takes care of Agu’s grandfather. Life isn’t necessarily perfect, but the family is happy with their life. Then comes a military coup and an ensuing civil war.
Eventually, the conflict makes its way to Agu’s town. While his mother and sister are able to make it out, Agu’s father is unable to send Agu with them. The remaining residents of the town are actually saved by government soldiers, but several of the men – including Agu and the men of his family – are identified by someone who doesn’t care for them as rebel sympathizers. Agu is the lone survivor of their reaction, though he’s driven into the forest scared, hungry and tired. He’s eventually caught by a rebel group with a charismatic leader called the Commandant (Idris Elba).
Agu’s fate is fairly clear from the moment the Commandant’s group, largely comprised of child soldiers, make their first appearance. Because of Agu’s education, the Commandant takes an immediate liking to Agu and forces him to go through training. The training culminates during a raid on a government convoy, where the Commandant orders Agu to kill a man who claims that he’s only an engineer. Agu’s eventual compliance is shocking in its brutality – even to Agu himself, who throws up once he’s finished. This act of violence secures Agu’s place in the Commandant’s group, but Agu holds onto hope that he’ll find a way to escape and find his mother.
The Commandant’s deplorable actions go beyond turning his soldiers into child soldiers, though. He maintains control over his soldiers through several methods, from the use of magic rituals to drug use (cocaine, cut with gunpowder) to sexual molestation. He’s a pathetic figure given power through a combination of his own authorial swagger and the silent approval of those above him. It’s to his credit that Idris Elba, the only known actor among the cast, turns what could be a one-note villain into something more complex; he’s still vile, but Elba’s actions hint at a sense of self-loathing that the script itself doesn’t suggest.
Elba may be the known name, but the film ultimately centers around Agu. Abraham Attah, in his first film role, is absolutely heartbreaking. He perfectly captures Agu’s journey through the film, from his joyful days with his family through the hurt, angry child he becomes through his time with the Commandant. The role of Agu is the key to making this film work, and Attah’s portrayal is essential to the film’s success.
Fukunaga, for his part, has artfully crafted a film that captures not only the horrors of war, but specifically the damage of war at this level on a young mind and spirit. It’s emotionally devastating, and one can only hope that between its creative pedigree and format for release (the film is Netflix’s first narrative film, and debuts on the platform day and date with its theatrical release) draws more attention to the film and its painfully urgent subject matter.