“Beasts of No Nation”: Child Soldiers and the Loss of the Father

The Netflix original film tells a harrowing tale of lost innocence.

MPAA Rating: NR
USCCB Rating: NR
Reel Rating:        

Disclaimer: Beasts of No Nation is an excellent but deeply disturbing film. It contains graphic depictions of war violence, mutilation, rape, drug use, and molestation—all involving preteen boys. However, its content is not sensational, but an accurate depiction of mature subject matter (think Schindler’s List, The Passion of the Christ). It is in limited theatrical release but is also streaming on Netflix. As of October 31, it has not been rated by the MPAA or the USCCB.

Everyone needs a family. If a man cannot get the love he needs from his own, he will go elsewhere to find it. Beasts of No Nation is a fictional tale that dramatizes that tragically real narrative of thousands of child soldiers in Africa. Torn from their homes, they find solace at the hands of monsters who use them for their own evil purposes.

Abraham Attah, in an astounding debut performance, plays Agu, an intelligent and mischievous boy who lives in a rural village in West Africa with his parents, older brother, younger sister, and elderly grandfather. This idyllic family life takes a sudden turn when the civil war that has been raging the country comes crashing in. His mother and sister are sent away to the capital while the men are left to protect their property. Innocent civilians are mistaken for rebels by the government forces and promptly executed without a trial. After witnessing the death of his father, grandfather, and brother, Agu flees into the jungle, where he runs straight into a rebel battalion of child soldiers headed by a mysterious and charismatic man known only as the Commandant (Idris Alba). He invites Agu to join their cause and get revenge on those who killed his family.

The Commandant must forever be counted as one of the great cinematic villains of the early 21st century—part military mastermind, part cult leader, part child predator, and all evil. He targets young boys specifically because of their psychological vulnerability. “All of you that have never been listened to before and have seen your family killed, you now have something that stands for you,” he tells them. “Who is your father?” he yells. “Commandant, sir,” they chant. He initiates them with pagan rituals yet talks about the will of God. He gives them attention and appeals to their adolescent fantasies of women and respect. Yet when the rebel force begins to win international support, the Supreme Leader asks the Commandant to abandon his battalion for a ceremonial post to improve their “public image.” The Commandant refuses and takes his cult deeper into the jungle. He is not interested in politics, only war.

In the process of watching this film, it’s easy to forget that Agu and his companions are just children who months before only cared about jungle-gyms, swimming pools, and pulling pranks. Now they are smoking heroin and executing prisoners with machetes. Throughout Agu’s journey, he speaks quietly to God about his circumstances. These prayers provide a terrifying window into the manipulation of his conscience. At first, he is just trying to survive, but when he commits his first murder, Agu bluntly states: “God, I killed a man. It is the worst sin, but I know it was the right thing to do.”

Slowly, Commandant teaches Agu to think like a killer and draws him closer into his inner circle. Suddenly, their relationship takes a dark turn and Agu begins to see through the lies, partially by developing a genuine friendship with a fellow victim.

How could an innocent child commit such atrocities? Revenge is the first motive, but that quickly fades. It is the community that turns Agu into a murderer, channeling his youthful energy and creativity into sinful directions. These children look to Commandant not only as their leader, but as their father who will protect them and show them how to be men. If anyone, especially a child, is rejected or robbed of his family, he will find a way to fill the void. This is why college-aged adults are the most common target for cults, why children of prisoners often join gangs. This is not an excuse for evil but a movement toward mercy and understanding. Sin always comes from somewhere.

In the end, Agu is questioned by a missionary about why he is hesitant to talk about his past experiences. His response is devastating: “I saw terrible things, and I did terrible things. So if I’m talking to you, it will make me sad, and it will make you too sad. In this life, I just want to be happy. If I’m telling this to you, you will think that I am some sort of beast or devil. I am all of these things, but I also have a mother…father…brother and sister once. They loved me.”

Agu and his friends are still people. The Commandant, too, is still a person. No human is a demon without the chance for redemption. The best way to ensure that is through the loving intimacy that can never be found in a government agency or political ideology, but only in a family.

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About Nick Olszyk 206 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".