Several wise females help a young teen from Nairobi’s Kibera slum learn what it takes to become a modern African man in “Soul Boy.” Ghanaian-Kenyan helmer Hawa Essuman’s gentle coming-of-ager encompasses the diverse worlds of the Kenyan capital, combining traditional beliefs and contemporary problems into a narrative that’s part fairy tale, part teaching tool. Growing out of a workshop led by German director Tom Tykwer, the pic is prime kidfest fare that should also circulate internationally in cultural centers, universities and cinematheques.
Fourteen-year-old Abila (Samson Odhiambo) awakes one Saturday to find his feckless father feeling so ill that he’s unable to open their tiny grocery shop. When Dad declares his soul has been stolen, Abi decides to take matters into his own hands.
With the help of his resourceful g.f., Shiku (Leila Dayan Opou), Abi confronts the mysterious Nyawawa (Krysteen Savane), a female spirit said to steal men’s souls. Admiring Abi’s bravery, the Nyawawa poses seven challenges for him to complete within 24 hours to restore his father’s health.
While completing his tasks, Abi learns to put himself in the place of others without judging them, explore new worlds without being seduced by them, rely on his own knowledge and confront his own fears. The considerable guidance he receives from Shiku highlights the greater maturity of the distaff side.
Raising the narrative beyond mere moral didacticism, the screenplay by Kenyan writer Billy Kahora naturally incorporates a slew of current issues, ranging from the tensions between the country’s Luo and Kikuyu tribes to campaigns for teen celibacy and HIV education. It also contrasts the poverty and crime of the vast slum with the privileged milieu of white Kenyans in their gated communities.
Debuting helmer Essuman draws energetic and sincere (if at times a tad stilted) perfs from her non-pro cast. In keeping with the hectic pace of the tale, she keeps the proceedings fluid with near-constant movement.
Standing out in the polished craft package, lenser Christian Almesberger’s handheld tracking shots provide a detailed perspective on the bustling, labyrinthine slum and the calm, open spaces inhabited by the rich. Equally notable, Xaver von Treyer’s fine percussive score integrates what sounds like traditional African instrumentation.