Underdog sports stories are a dime a dozen; this one takes its premise in enough interesting directions to provide more than formulaic uplift. Based on a true story, it follows the life of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a girl living in a Ugandan slum with her widowed mother (Lupita Nyong’o) when she discovers a special skill for chess after she learns the game from missionary teacher Robert Katande (David Oyelowo). The script follows plenty of familiar rise-and-fall-of-fortune patterns as it spans five years of Phiona’s developing abilities as a chess prodigy, including the teacher who brings his own back-story of challenges to the relationship. But there’s a thoughtfulness here to the tension between parents who want more for their children (captured in Nyong’o’s richly layered performance), and the distance that can grow between parents and children who get a chance to experience that “more.” Director Mira Nair can’t avoid a certain degree of Disney gloss in the portrayal of her impoverished characters, but she’s fundamentally respectful about the complications that emerge on a path out of poverty—even a feel-good path.
Director: Mira Nair
Producer: Lydia Dean Pilcher, John Carls, Will Weiske and Troy Buder
Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o, Martin Kabanza, Taryn "Kay" Kyaze, Ronald Ssemaganda, Ethan Lubega and Esther Tebandeke