Set in an unnamed African state, Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation is a harrowing and unflinching tale of child soldiers. The story opens with Agu (Abraham Attah) and his mates trying to entertain themselves while school is put on hold. With warring factions on either side of their town, now a buffer zone, and a largely ineffectual UN peacekeeping force keeping an eye on procedings, normal life has to take a back seat.

Agu’s on a mission to sell his imagination TV, involving the wooden facade of the screen. Turning the channels, the viewer gets to watch Agu and his pals act out different scenarios from telenovelas to 3-D action. Little does he realise how soon his life will resemble a horror film that would be beyond most of our wildest imaginations.

When there is no more buffer zone, Agu’s mother and younger siblings are squeezed into a car and taken to the city, while the men (Agu’s teacher dad, handsome older brother and senile grandfather) are left to fend for themselves. When the government troops annihilate the remaining men, Agu escapes into the forest, only to be taken prisoner and indoctrinated into the world of the boy soldier. Leading these juvenile troops is the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba) whose towering physical presence, gift of the gab and psychological artistry holds the kids in thrall to him.

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Elba has a deft touch when depicting his character’s love of the spoils of war. Like a wealthy patron with a personal shopper, he picks out his preferred trophies with a little nod and gesture. Hauling out a dead body, he chooses a new ride and we see him patting his new acquisition. These unostentatious gestures show that he’s in the business of war for more than political reasons. And we soon learn that his grooming of young boys and picking out favourites is far from paternal or bellicose.

The horror increases, with Agu forced into his first kill (a machete chop to the head), the crazy logic of all perpetrators on both sides, the magic rituals and the “brown-brown” that helps alleviate the boys’ psychological pain. Throughout the film Agu speaks to God, but at some point he shifts his inner dialogue to his mother as God is obviously not listening.

Fukunaga uses colour beautifully, the lushness of the forests recalling these young green kids who are so full of life and vitality. At one point, though, the colour drains from the screen and the images are reminiscent of Irish photographer Richard Mosse, who uses Kodak Aerochrome (a technique originally used by the US military to seek out soldiers in camouflage) in his images of soldiers in eastern Congo. The effect is both stunning and alien.

Elba and the young Abebrese are compelling as the two leads and there is no happy denouement to this timely tale. Screening on a day that saw images of a dead young boy washed up on the shores of Turkey, Beasts of No Nation is a stark reminder of the children who are caught in the middle of so much senseless and seemingly endless violence. With this earnest and engrossing film, Fukunaga reminds us that there are few happy endings to tales such as this.

Beasts of No Nation is Netflix’s first foray into the world of features, and will have a limited theatrical release before appearing on the streaming service in October.