A dramatic microcosm of the age-old conflict between progress and tradition, “Nakom” follows a Ghanian medical student as he’s dragged by family obligations back into the change-resistant world of his native farming village. This second feature (following 2013’s Cuba-shot “Sombras de Azul”) for U.S.-based co-directors Kelly Daniela Norris and TW Pittman doesn’t have the outside-looking-in feel of similar international co-productions; there’s an air of authenticity as well as a pleasingly laid-back yet substantive narrative engagement to this polished effort. While theatrical prospects will be limited, positive fest-circuit buzz should stir some interest from home-format buyers.
Iddrisu (Jacob Ayanaba) is enjoying life in urban Kumasi, where he’s got a girlfriend and is doing well in his studies. But out of the blue, a call from his sister Damata (Grace Ayariga) yanks him from his university in the middle of a term: Their father has died, requiring that the eldest son return to bury him and help settle his affairs. After the long bus rides northward to his family’s mud-hut homestead, Iddrisu discovers much in disarray: His mother (Justina Kulidu) won’t speak to the late patriarch’s second, “junior” wife (Shetu Musah); Damata resents the fact that there’s only enough money for Iddrisu’s studies, not her own; younger sibling Kamal (Abdul Aziz) is an irresponsible layabout.
Though they’re hardly local gentry, everyone treats relative Fatima (Esther Isaaka) as an inferior servant. Worst of all, Iddrisu soon discovers that their property might soon revert whole to Uncle Napoleon (Thomas Kulidu), from whom Dad recklessly borrowed money in the wake of a drought-compromised recent growing season. Though these squabbles test his patience, Iddrisu proves an adept negotiator and problem solver. Prevented from returning to college immediately, he stays on through the year’s harvest, tentatively turning the family’s fortunes around and putting out a few additional fires along the way.
Such natural leadership qualities do not fail to impress the local chief (James Azudago), who notes that the village “needs someone like you” to lead it into modernity, and whose attractive, intelligent, unattached daughter (Felicia Atampuri) provides additional reason to linger. But pleasant as assuming this patriarchal mantle turns out to be in many ways, staying would force Iddrisu to give up everything he’s worked for — including plans to commence practice as a doctor in America. There’s no middle ground possible between his family’s demands and his own worldly ambitions: One will have to be sacrificed to serve the other.
That’s a stark choice that (like other factors here, including the revelation of an illegitimate pregnancy) could have been handled in melodramatic terms. But the directors (and producer/co-scenarist Isaac Adakudugu, credited with involving his actual village of Nakom in many aspects of the pic’s creation) favor a naturalistic, light-footed approach that weaves all incident comfortably into a credible, eventful yet leisurely pattern of everyday life. There’s plenty of room for humor, albeit of an offhand rather than broad nature.
Key to “Nakom’s” success is Ayanaba’s gracefully assured turn, which convinces us that Iddrisu might go very far in this world — and that he’s well aware what he’ll miss out on if he stays put. The supporting turns are astutely handled, with many actors apparently recruited from the Nakom community of subsistence farmers practicing age-old customs that persist despite their increasing irrelevancy to an encroaching outside world.
Packaging is pro on all levels, with standout contributions being Robert Geile’s handsome widescreen lensing and an attractive acoustic score by rising West African musician Daby Balde.