[Screen It]


(2016) (Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo) (PG)

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Drama: A young girl hopes to escape the slums and poverty of her Ugandan town by becoming an international chess champion.
It's 2007 and Phiona Mutesi (MADINA NALWANGA) is a young girl growing up in the slums of Katwe near Kampala, Uganda. Along with her brother, Mugabi Brian (MARTIN KABANZA), and widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (LUPITA NYONG'O), Phiona sells vegetables to support her family and her youngest sibling. Her older sister, Night (TARYN "KAY" KYAZE), isn't interested in that life and has taken up with a young man, much to Nakku's dismay.

That mom also becomes concerned when Phiona and Brian start spending time with Robert Katende (DAVID OYELOWO), a former soccer player and husband to Sarah (ESTHER TEBANDEKE). While he dreams of getting hired as an engineer, he's taken a job as a sports ministry coach where he teaches kids how to play chess. Phiona initially clashes with another kid there, Ivan (RONALD SSEMAGANDA), but quickly takes to the game and shows she's a natural talent.

Robert sees that as well and pushes her to get better, something that doesn't sit well with Nakku who sees no future in that and believes it's a waste of Phiona's time when she should be working. But as Phiona increases her skills as the years pass by, Robert convinces Nakku to allow him to enter the girl into increasingly competitive chess tournaments, realizing that winning those could be her ticket out of the slums.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Let's face it -- if you're going to make a sports drama and can choose any sport and its participants to portray on the big screen, chess isn't likely going to be at the top of most people's lists. After all, the likes of football, baseball, boxing and plenty of others have an obvious physicality to them that's easy to recreate on film, and the opponents who are pitted against each other must contend with that, the involved strategy and one's mental mindset.

While chess obviously has some of those attributes, most of the battles take place inside the players' heads, with only a tiny bit of involved physical movement. Accordingly, it's not that exciting to watch -- at least for those who aren't huge fans of the game -- if one only considers the actual board play. That's why most films that revolve around the sport must focus more on the participants than the actual games.

The latest such example of that is Disney's "Queen of Katwe." Based on Tim Crothers' 2012 book "The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster," the pic is all about young Phiona Mutesi, one of the first titled female players in Ugandan chess history.

In a way, it's something of a cinematic cousin to "Slumdog Millionaire" in that it features a character who grew up in the slums, had little education and seemed to have everything in place to go against them, yet managed to be poised for success and resultant fame. Whereas Danny Boyle's terrific (and Oscar-winning) film starts near the end and then rewinds and goes back and forth through time to show the unlikely journey, however, screenwriter William Wheeler and director Mira Nair start near the beginning and then depict young Phiona's unlikely rise toward the top of her chosen game.

The result is a winning underdog pic where newcomer Madina Nalwanga shines as the girl who's raised by a single mother (a terrific Lupita Nyong'o) and finds herself tutored by a young coach (David Oyelowo) who's hoping to land an engineering job while otherwise working for a sports outreach mission teaching local kids how to play chess.

Phiona takes to the game like a duck to water, soon betters the best kid in the group, and then starts competing at increasingly competitive and international levels. But that includes letting her early success start to go to her head, although with this being a Disney flick, you know that's only going to go so far before her mental ship is righted and she's back on track to take us along on a mostly engaging and satisfying journey.

And I say "mostly" because while the film is welcomed for predominantly featuring a cast of color, was shot on location in the slums of Katwe near Kampala, Uganda and Johannesburg, South Africa and stems from a true and quite frankly remarkable story, its excellence seemed to ebb and flow for me.

Perhaps that due to the plot following the standard and predictable course of a coach -- with his own issues -- trying to help a young person recognize and then excel with their talent, all of which we've seen plenty of times before. Or maybe it was the film's running time of a bit more than two hours that made it feel not quite as tight as it could and likely should have been. Whatever the case, the film occasionally felt sporadic in terms making me forget everything and simply go along for the ride (something that seemingly happened effortlessly with "Slumdog").

None of which is to slight the film that's a good and empowering story for girls and particularly underprivileged kids in terms of working hard to overcome one's life situation -- and the inevitable obstacles and setbacks that are certain to rise up -- to reach one's full potential. Although it might not quite reach "queen" status, "Queen of Katwe" is certainly a sports drama worth checking out, especially since it celebrates brains over brawn and girl power. It rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 7, 2016 / Posted September 23, 2016

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