Sixteen-year-old Jumah (Nsengiyumva), who is African born and has witness some brutal atrocities in his homeland, is brought to inner-city London by his adoptive mother Laura (Rachael Stirling), a nurse, to live a safer existence and prosper from the educational opportunities. However, after witnessing a local murder on the estate, Jumah’s child soldier demons surface again and unravel the progress he is making, resulting in disruptive behaviour and threats from those involved in the killing.
The issues stem not from the plot as such, but the execution and expansion of it, plus the underdeveloped characters in Brown’s script that deliver pregnant pauses in the proceedings, as though the actors wonder how far their characterisation can be stretched. There is almost desperation on their part that is very apparent. Some unauthentic dialogue between school kids jars too, as well as some dubious acting from some of the supporting cast.
Brown seems to miss a trick completely in delivering a sound, nuanced performance from his lead, who could have been highly compelling but just comes across as an average, frustrated teen who commits acts of sporadic violence without much postmortem or genuinely expressed regret. There are scenes where Jumah stares off into the distance that feel very closed off to the viewer – just what he is thinking in these moments is paramount to understanding what makes him tick.
Obviously, seeing an old family photo of Jumah’s folks stirs emotions but does nothing else – we don’t really know why he is reluctant to share this with his girlfriend, for example. All we know is Jumah loves barbering and sees his future at a local shop. It all feels as if Brown is lazily padding out the story to feature-length run-time when all he needed to do was give us more depth to Jumah’s character, especially as Nsengiyumva has demonstrated he can deliver the goods from the delightfully charming Africa United.
The guilty party, headed up by Sam Spruell as adult gang leader Liam, acts as an obvious plot driver in providing the catalyst for Jumah’s demise. They are very one-dimensional in portrayal and rather predictable (sneering, menacing threats) – thankfully, there is no squalid bed-sit thrown in for good measure. It is unclear who is the greater threat to Jumah – them or himself – as the anger he feels is not expressed convincingly enough.
Overall, Brown has squandered a good idea. It’s a great shame, as it all feels half-heartedly executed when the story had so much potential. Perhaps getting someone else to write or co-write the feature in future might improve matters with any subsequent project. Frustratingly, Brown has talent but needs a second chance to prove it.