“A boy is a dangerous thing,” says the Commandant, who leads an army of young soldiers fighting a civil war in an unspecified West African country. He’s talking about Agu, a newly captured prisoner and also, potentially, a fresh recruit, who has fled into the forest hoping to escape the violence that has consumed his hometown.
Agu, who describes himself as “a good boy from a good family,” seems perfectly harmless — a skinny preadolescent whose capacity for malice doesn’t extend beyond pranks directed at his vain, girl-crazy older brother. But the most heartbreaking thing about “Beasts of No Nation” is that both Agu and the Commandant are right. The line between innocence and evil is thinner than the blade of a machete.
Written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, “Beasts of No Nation” is based on Uzodinma Iweala’s harrowing, linguistically dazzling novel of a child soldier’s life. Mr. Iweala’s distinctive prose style is sometimes echoed in Agu’s voice-over narration, but the boy’s point of view is more immediately conveyed in the watchful eyes and sensitive features of Abraham Attah, the nimble young actor who plays him. Agu is numbed by horror and hardened by the brutality he has witnessed and perpetrated. The Commandant (Idris Elba) trains him and his comrades to be “warriors,” which is to say war criminals. While the film, like the book, does not turn away from the atrocities they commit, it also doesn’t allow you to forget that they’re children.