After a mishap involving bus tickets, Rwandan football prodigy Fabrice (Nsengiyumva), his makeshift manager Dudu (Ndayambaje), and Dudus sister Beatrice (Kintu) find themselves in the Congo rather than the trials for the World Cup opening ceremony. Aband
With a flush of multi-coloured credits, a cluster of urchins fending off an indifferent world, and an attempt to parlay Dickensian melodrama into an exotic setting, there’s no missing the intention — it’s the African Slumdog! Except that ten minutes into this sweet-natured but first-base adventure tale, it’s evident it doesn’t hold a scuffed trainer to Danny Boyle’s Mumbai magic.
First-time director Debs Gardner-Paterson, who grew up in Rwanda, lacks the dramatic flair to match her enthusiasm to depict an Africa unclouded by genocide or colonial ruin. Her film is cheerful, pleasantly acted, in every sense sunny, but in its haste and sentimentality flits by without troubling our nerves. Her bright, personable cast trek through the vastness of the Congo, Zambia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa as if it were a jaunt to the local rec.
The structure is a road movie, but every threat — growling panthers, snarling border guards, ravenous food shortages and topically infused traffickers in child-soldiers and sex slaves — is evaded by dashing off in the opposite direction. Even when valiant Dudu (Eriya Ndayambaje) falls ill, there’s a hospital around the next bend.
While the dated World Cup backdrop scrapes by as a context for these African dreamers, it does provide welcome shots of wry football dogma. At one roadblock, the gang are halted by a recalcitrant foe. “Arsenal?” he snarls at Dudu’s Fabregas-emblazoned shirt, before pointing out the blue under his jacket: “Chelsea!” To cross the South African border, patrolled by the most unbending of gatekeepers, they play penalties against a fence with an inflated condom. Oh, how football unites the world!
You’ll gather it is pitched very young. To add vitality to Gardner-Paterson’s prosaic style (is Africa really so unchanging?) the film is cluttered with stop-motion animation, onscreen maps and restless montages. What it needed was slowing down, letting the tension tighten into genuine unpleasantness. Like the World Cup final.
The intention is Spain, the kids are Uruguay, but the direction and script are England.