MOVIES ABOUT Very Important Subjects often maintain a distance from their material, focusing on the larger social import rather than the squirmingly personal small details. The glory of the Oscar-nominated War Witch is how it refuses the windscreen, keeping its narrative firmly within the often-skewed perceptions of a teenaged heroine living by the sword and addled by hallucinogenic tree sap. While writer/director Kim Nguyen's film isn't always an easy sit, this unblinkingly personal, quasi-supernatural approach ultimately pays huge dividends.
Framed as a bedtime story to an unborn child, Nguyen's film follows Komona (Rachel Mwanza), a Congolese child soldier pressed into service by the guerrillas who wiped out her village. After demonstrating some uncanny survival skills (including, but not limited to, seeing dead people), her captors come to believe that she possesses magic powers, placing her squarely at the front lines. After an especially chaotic skirmish, she and a fellow captive steal away to the woods, for a briefly idyllic romantic spell. Before long, however, reality comes crashing back in.
Viewers expecting the serious, important trudge suggested by the subject matter will likely be disarmed by the fluidity with which Nguyen tells his story, drifting between fantasy, musical interludes, and even a brief plunge into Cronenbergian body horror in almost imperceptible puffs. (The moment where the gun-toting kids kick back and watch a Van Damme movie somehow fires off every emotional synapse simultaneously.) Impressive as the filmmaking is, however, it's unlikely that it would have half the impact without the presence of Mwanza, a former street child whom the director discovered while watching a documentary on homelessness. While not the most expressive presence, her stolidity ultimately breaks down the last line of remove between the reality of the situation and her fiction. When she chooses to let her guard down, the academic response flies out the window.