The first spawn of a German co-sponsored training/production program started after the success of Tom Tykwer and Hawa Essuman’s “Soul Boy,” Kenya’s Oscar submission “Nairobi Half Life” is a lively affair that wears its cliches lightly. Helmer Tosh Gitonga’s first feature seldom surprises with its familiar tale of a country bumpkin sucked into criminal doings while trying to make it in the big city, but it also avoids cheap melodrama or sentimentality. Gritty without being too downbeat, the film was a home-turf hit, and should find a warmer welcome than usual for African features offshore, at least in home formats.
Nineteen-year-old Mwas (Joseph Wairimu) mixes business with pleasure in his daily rounds, hawking pirate DVDs while frequently and flamboyantly acting out their stories, to the general delight of spectators. Clearly, he’s got too much talent to waste in his podunk hometown — at least, he thinks so. Figuring he’s got an “in” at a major theater, he sets off for Nairobi, where he’s immediately robbed of everything save the clothes on his back. Then, haplessly caught among fleeing looters, he’s thrown in jail, where his gumption attracts the friendship of older, streetwise Oti (Olwenya Maina).
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Oti hooks Mwas up with menial work, then, when released, draws the lad into his circle of petty car-part thieves and muggers. Meanwhile, Mwas attends an open audition at a neighborhood playhouse, winning a role in a production whose musings about Kenya’s stark economic divisions mirror his own situation. When Oti & Co. graduate to carjacking, the money and risks grow, leading to violent gang warfare and police brutality from which Mwas will be lucky to exit alive — let alone in time for his opening night.
One might guess how all this turns out, and the team-written script seldom diverges from the predictable. Still, it refuses (at least until the very end) to make its points too bluntly, preferring to let the message seep in through character and circumstance rather than overt hand-wringing. Potential stereotypes are soft-pedaled — notably a young prostitute (Nancy Wanjiku Karanja) with whom Mwas becomes friends — and the brisk pace culminates in a tense action climax. Aptly scruffy in feel, the pic is nonetheless well turned in tech departments.