Queen of Katwe, directed by an Indian and set in a slum in Uganda, might sound like an unlikely Disney project. Yet, as it unfolds, Disney-like qualities do come to the fore. It has a determined heroine at its centre, a studio staple all the way from Snow White to Frozen. This is probably the closest a Mira Nair film has come to “family viewing", this despite the sporadic violence and mentions of prostitution and the ever-present poverty of Katwe, a slum in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Above all, there’s the very Disney reassurance that nothing too terrible is going to happen. Like last year’s beautiful Kaaka Muttai, which showed us the squalor of its young protagonists’ lives but wrapped everything in warm vibes, Queen of Katwe is rarely downbeat or devoid of hope.

Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) lives with her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), her two brothers and elder sister in a run-down shanty in Katwe. She and her brother sell corn in the market but the money from that isn’t enough to guarantee a square meal a day. So, when she discovers that her brother has joined a sports outreach programme which guarantees a free cup of porridge a day, the nine-year-old tags along. There, she’s noticed by Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a former football player who teaches the local children chess. Mutesi can’t read, has no prior training, but she shows an unusual aptitude for the game.

Anyone who’s seen a couple of Nair’s films knows the speed at which she can zip through a narrative. Here, she alternates between Mutesi’s almost miraculously improving game and her hardscrabble home life, all the while providing vignettes of life in colourful, chaotic Kampala. Mutesi’s first big win is in a school tournament, a sequence that’s written broadly (mean posh schoolkids taunting poorer rivals is a time-worn sports film trope) but staged with great economy and humour. Chess enthusiasts may feel disappointed that more time isn’t spent on the board, but Nair is interested in other things, like the confidence with which the players pick up their pencils and tap the clocks, or the mental advantage that a lollipop might give a well-off boy over one from a slum.

As with his screenplay for Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, William Wheeler’s writing is a little too on-the-nose. Yet, Queen of Katwe is elevated by the uniqueness of Mutesi’s story and the specificity of Nair’s eye. The director has lived in Kampala, on and off, for 27 years now, and it shows in the astonishing level of detail she summons: the finger snaps and paraffin lamps; a solitary goat on top of a piled-up truck carrier; Mutesi removing her shoes before the most important match of her life. It’s as dynamic and unsentimental a portrait of slum life as her first feature film, Salaam Bombay!, made over 25 years ago. The only thing that’s changed is the slight gloss this film has, and the absence of real danger.

The graceful Nalwanga, a dancer by training, captures Mutesi’s shy speaking style well, but the key performances are by the film’s stars. Oyelowo gets to turn on the charm, for the real Robert Katende has the charisma of a movie star himself (see A Fork, A Spoon and a Knight, a short film on his life). Nyong’o is fierce and desperate and resourceful—sometimes all at once, like in the scene where she approaches a shady cloth merchant with an offer. During the end credits, the actors are joined onscreen, one by one, by the person they’ve portrayed. It’s a wonderful idea, and an indication of how, for all its larger implications, this was probably a very personal film for everyone involved.

Queen of Katwe releases in theatres on Friday.

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