Energetic and charming if ultimately conventional and messy.
Though ultimately not living up to the hype of being “the next Slumdog Millionaire”, ‘Africa United’ is a brisk, fun little yarn that has a distinct, vibrant personality, even if its trajectory is eventually just too conventional and its emotional core is utterly hollow.
It goes without saying that the precocious charm of an impoverished Rwandan kid improvising a football out of a condom, some string and a plastic bag is undeniable. That kid is Dudu (Eriya Ndayambaje), an affable young football fanatic who dreams of going to the World Cup with his best friend Fabrice (Roger Nsengiyumva). Luckily, Fabrice is invited to try out for a part in the 2010 World Cup opening ceremony after a talent scout watches his sublime skill with a ball (makeshift ball, anyway). With self-appointed manager Dudu in tow, along with his friend Beatrice (Sanyu Joanita Kintu), they begin an epic road-trip across Africa, which introduces them to new comrades along the way, in the marginalised and exploited waitress Celeste (Sherrie Silver) and the wannabe gangster Foreman George (Yves Dusenge). With a never-say-die attitude, the group of five will make it to the World Cup at any cost.
‘Africa United’ has all of the necessary underdog elements at its disposal; pint-sized heroes, an epic scope, grand adversity, and of course, disapproving parents (Fabrice’s parents feel he should focus on his studies). The film is in essence more of a road film than any sort of sports pic, and it depicts a road trip that goes very wrong very quickly, with the clan first winding up in the wrong country of all things, where they must escape being forced into an armed resistance by the locals. Naturally, the film is socially conscious – as is unavoidable in providing the most remote scrap of authenticity – managing a constant interplay between its own light-hearted intentions and a more serious undercurrent percolating beneath, of AIDS and gang violence. There is gunfire frequently, but it is almost cartoon-like in its execution, for we never fear for the safety of the protagonists even one moment. The film juggles these opposed aspects well enough, though bungles their merging at the uneasy, histrionic climax.
Despite undeniably energy, Debs Gardner-Paterson’s direction lacks the frenetic verve of Danny Boyle’s; the cheesy, low-rent editing evokes a straight-to-video feel, along with a corny soundtrack that is reminiscent of a mid-afternoon, low-budget feature you would see on Nickelodeon. Better, however, are several crudely animated sequences peppered throughout, which tell an allegorical tale alongside the actual story, melding the fantasticism of childhood storytelling with some memorable visuals.
The film gets gritter as it goes along, but Ndayambaje as Dudu – no doubt the funniest and most likeable character – keeps it from disappearing into darkness entirely. The spectre of HIV never goes away, though; a blood test scene is genuinely quite harrowing for a picture marketed as being fluffy and lightweight. While this in itself creates a firm group bond, it is nevertheless at odds with the goofiness that wafts through the pic in its more generic adventure elements. Even for a film of sub-90 minutes, Africa United zips through its beats so fast that it feels like a checklist being ticked off. There is little time to breathe, but not in that exhilerating, ‘Slumdog’-style; the obstacles are so arbitary in their construction – especially how Fabrice convinces a security guard to let him past by demonstrating some of his footy skills – that the film would be easier to admire if it just employed some economy and chose not to patronise with such simple-minded challenges.
The late-day twist is genuinely unexpected, if not particularly well-advised given how it is followed through. It is a revelation of grave importance, which is then brushed over in favour of a “greater” goal that suddenly doesn’t seem so important (though perhaps this is a cultural thing, that the threat of the reality of living where they do wears down over time). The ho-hum, apparently triumphant climax hints at something more murky and downbeat taking place backstage, though not explicitly displayed – perhaps because of the 12A rating – yet it is something that feels infinitely more important, and for which the film could have been used imaginatively as a platform to explain.
This is not to say that ‘Africa United’ is a bad film because, in fact, it is frequently fun, but that its stature as the next underdog masterclass has been severely overstated; this is standard operating procedure for the genre, if told with some popping visuals and decent performances, mired by some sloppy direction and a thick layer of cheese.
‘Africa United’ is released in U.K. Cinema’s from tomorrow.