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by Jay Seaver

"A much-told story from a different place."
4 stars

We need more films from Africa hitting American screens in general, and not just because it's the corner of the world that often seems least represented. The poppy colors, general attitude, and rhythms of the language on display in this movie are like nowhere else, and even those of us without much personal connection to Kenya richer for experiencing them, and it being a fairly charming little story about two Nairobi girls in love doesn't hurt at all.

The first is Kena Mwaura (Samantha Mugatsia), a wiry and athletic teenager who trades barbs with guys like motorcycle cabbie Blacksta (Neville Misati), lives with very religious mother Mercy (Nini Wacera), and works in her father's convenience store. That father John (Jimmy Gathu) has another baby on the way with another woman has him the subject of gossip but hasn't really slowed his election campaign against wealthy incumbent Peter Okemi (Dennis Musyoka), which is how Kena meets Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), as Okemi's outgoing daughter with the pink and purple hair feels the need to apologize when her friends rip down some of John's campaign posters. Something sparks, but this isn't necessarily a place where two girls necessarily want to advertise that they're more than friends.

"Friends" is how the film's Swahili title is translated, and the film is a chaste enough romance that it probably wouldn't take all that much effort to reconfigure it into a story about unlikely friends supporting each other's independence and ambitions, and how that sort of solidarity cam frighten people, if the fights with various censor boards began to seem unwinnable. That Kenya is apparently at a point where the reception is so uncertain is baked into the film itself - a bill to legalize gay marriage is an issue in the campaign, and neither Kena or Ziki ever expresses much doubt about their attraction, but there's also a lot of overt homophobia that can be whipped into a frenzy without much effort. Co-writer and director Wanuri Kahiu makes it clear that this is not entirely split on age and class lines, but does do a nice job of making it clear that Ziki has perhaps been sheltered from everyday prejudice in a way that Kena has not, without spelling it out in words.

Kahiu has a nice eye for small details, like Ziki taking her shoes off before getting into an abandoned van because she immediately recognizes it as someplace that can feel like home, or how pervasive gossip and homophobia is in the community, making it properly overwhelming not by doing a conventional montage but by having the picture quickly jump between different people, suggesting how this juicy info will move around without really breaking from Kena. She thankfully doesn't over-commit to the Romeo & Juliet story, letting it hang there as a starting point without having it blot out the rest of what's going on.

The two leads are also likable as heck, lighting up when they first see each other and having the right combinations of wary and fearless in all their interactions. Samantha Mugatsia is in nearly every scene and handles all that Kahiu asks of her, sneaking in moments of nervousness and disappointment as Kena watches her parents sabotage what relationship they have left, never quite making her look like a kid as opposed to a young adult but zeroing in on a certain very specific level of maturity. Sheila Munyiva gets to show something of a broader swing as Ziki, her more easily-built confidence shaken, but at both extremes she's a lot of fun to watch with Mugatsia. They build chemistry quickly, and neither fades to the background even when more pointed, colorful characters are part of the scene.

For a regular consumer of independent film, "Rafiki" is admittedly mostly unique for its setting; there have been enough movies about teenage girls in love that one can plot out what's going to happen with relative ease. But that setting's important, and it's not as if Kahiu and her team are not putting all they can into the result. "Rafiki" is vibrant and even exciting on occasion, a movie that can broaden most viewers' horizons in one direction or another.

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originally posted: 10/30/18 09:33:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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