Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyewelo, Lupita Nyong'o
Running Time: 124 Minutes
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.