Just try to resist the charms of Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe,” a triumph-of-the-human-spirit movie. The story – a true one, as you’ll be reminded in the delightful end credits – is one of those irresistible underdog tales: Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl growing up in poverty in the slums of Katwe, Uganda, learns unexpectedly that she has a knack for chess. With the help of a kind mentor, Robert (David Oyelowo), and the support — if not always the understanding — of her fiercely loving widowed mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), Phiona works hard to achieve her dream of becoming a chess champion.
You’ve likely seen a hundred movies with a similar arc, but when it works, it works. “Queen of Katwe,” for all its familiarity, is a family film in the best sense of the phrase. It’s suitable for all ages and it celebrates the bonds of family: both the one we are born into, and the one that we acquire.
There are no villains in this sweet tale, just a few temporary missteps. Harriet at first mistrusts the sports ministry run by Robert where Phiona is encouraged to develop her chess skills; a woman accustomed to hardship (she sells vegetables in the street to pay for her family’s meager dwelling), she doesn’t see the point of a game. Nyong’o plays Harriet as both tower of strength and woman wrapped in a smothering shawl of pride that she rarely allows to drop.
Things grow dark for Phiona and her family (which also includes two young brothers and a cautionary-tale older sister) before light dawns: In one haunting scene, evicted from their home, they stumble through the dark streets carrying their possessions. But we all know how movies like this are supposed to end, and “Queen of Katwe” doesn’t disappoint. As a metaphor for life, we learn, chess is invaluable. Find safe squares. Don’t be quick to tip your king. And, most important: What matters isn’t losing, but finding the strength to reset your pieces and start again.
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Queen of Katwe
Rated: PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material. Starring: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o. Director: Mira Nair. Running time: 124 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Flicks, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.