What makes a “based on a true story” film legitimately compelling rather than a fleetingly entertaining curiosity? The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the latest Netflix original film and directorial debut from actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, may be an utterly conventional heart-warmer of a true story, but it manages to find its way into the former category.

William Kamkwamba (played by a precocious yet unaffected Maxwell Simba) is a young Malawi teen whose family seems perpetually on the verge of financial ruin. He’s a smart kid with a mechanical mind, always trying to figure out how things work so that he can fix them, and he attends the local school (although he faces the constant threat of expulsion as his father struggles to find the money for the school fees). Still, their family is a happy one full of promise, as he seems poised to do well academically while his older sister Annie (Lily Banda) prepares to attend university.

Their biggest problem is that their father Trywell (played by Ejiofor, in addition to his writing and directing duties) is a farmer whose fortunes rise and fall with the wind and the rain and the sun. They’re all keenly aware that one bad harvest will have them facing destitution, and the selling of nearby trees seems likely to create conditions that will ruin their crop. There’s an ever-present sense, even when they’re happy and things appear to be going well, that bad times are just around the corner.

Sure enough, it’s only a matter of time before famine strikes, and not only their family but their entire village are thrown into dire straits that threaten their livelihoods and their very lives. The government is unable and uninterested in bailing out the farmers, and looting occurs as people become increasingly desperate. The Kamkwamba family cuts down to one meal a day, but still, there is the inescapable knowledge in the back of their minds that even this measure will not be enough to see them all through to the next harvest. William becomes convinced that the only way to save the village is to construct a massive wind turbine to power the water pump so that the farms wouldn’t be so heavily impacted by adverse weather conditions. And, as the title suggests, he harnesses the wind.

But now we’re brought back to the original question, the only one that can help assess the quality of a film like this: what makes a fairly straightforward story compelling, beyond just the novelty of it being based in reality? In the case of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a large part of it has to do with the rich, textured depiction of William’s family. Their dynamics are incredibly multi-faceted and nuanced.

Both parents value education; they tell the principal of William’s school that when they married, they always said they would never end up merely praying for rain as their ancestors had. Their children would go to school and they would be modern, looking to the future rather than the past. The mother Agnes (Aïssa Maïga) is endlessly proud of their daughter Annie, and she sees in her the fulfilment of all of her dreams to be more than just a wife and mother, the potential to do things she hadn’t even realized a woman could. And the looks on their faces when they’re able to present William with his brand new school uniform tells us everything we need to know about their priorities and hopes for their children.

But their lives are built on shifting sand, and we see the first cracks when William isn’t allowed to study for a science test because they don’t have enough kerosene. It becomes clear that Annie will not be going to university after all — they don’t have the money. And as their situation becomes increasingly dire, they are forced to become the people they swore they would never be: their ancestors, praying for rain. There’s a certain amount of bitterness and resentment in their interactions, as they grew more frustrated and angry at their own powerlessness.

Trywell in particular struggles with his failure to provide for his family, and his relationship with William grows even more complex. William is still the boy that his parents taught him to be: bright, innovative, always looking to the future and confident in his own abilities. He knows that he can build a wind turbine that will help save the entire village, if his father will only give him his bike for parts. “There are things I know that you don’t know,” he says simply to his father, which says everything, really.

These dynamics bring warmth and depth to what is otherwise just a fairly standard feel-good film. Its filmmakers clearly have a keen understanding of Malawi social structures and never attempt to sentimentalize it the way you often see when films about Africa are made by white directors — this nuance goes a long way towards creating a solidly built biographical film that may not be earth-shattering but is of unquestionable quality.

Rating: ★★★½

Directed by: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Maxwell Simba, Felix Lemburo