Review: Queen of Katwe

Score: B+

Director: Mira Nair

Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyewelo, Lupita Nyong'o

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Rated: PG


As you may have noticed, original ideas are a rarity these days. Most times the best we can hope for is a well-executed version of a story we've seen plenty of times before. Queen of Katwe is that best-case scenario.


There's a long line of underdog sports movies that goes all the way back to Buster Keaton's College. You can swap out football for boxing (Rocky) or hockey (The Mighty Ducks) or even math (Stand and Deliver) and the setting for the Montreal Olympics (Cool Runnings) or the Indiana state championship (Hoosiers). The beats are all the same, but these movies endure. It will be years before we know if Queen of Katwe joins their ranks, but it's solid on its own today.


Newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona, a Ugandan girl who spends her days selling corn to help take care of her two brothers. Her mother (Lupita Nyong'o) scrapes together what she can since her husband died, but it's barely enough to keep a roof over their heads. Luckily, the film strikes the right balance between hopeful optimism and the grim realities of growing up in the slums. It's neither unrealistic about Phiona's chances nor does it wallow in the family's suffering.


When Phiona stumbles onto a youth chess program, she immediately takes a shine to the game of skill, despite having no schooling. Her teacher is Robert Katende (David Oyewelo), who's only biding his time until he can get an engineering job, but comes to love the kids – particularly Phiona and her brothers – as his own.


Queen of Katwe rolls through all the major points we expect from these movies: the training montage, the upset of snobby rivals, the inevitable setback and the big triumph. But Mira Nair navigates these scenes with skill, and the acting is quite good, even though most of the cast is made of newcomers.


While there's no points for originality, Queen of Katwe still scores a win.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.

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