The star of “Supa Modo” is a bright young girl living in rural Kenya.
Jo loves comic books and Jackie Chan movies, and has familiar half-serious, half-joking discussions with her friends about how superheroes would fare in the real world. They all agree Iron Man would not survive the wet season without rustproof armor.
Then Jo tells them she is going home, and the smiles and laughter stop.
We immediately know why, and the children do as well: they are in the cancer ward of a pediatric hospital. Once a child goes home, they never return.
Like many other children, Jo has daydreams about being a superhero herself. Every so often, she closes her eyes, thinks very hard, and miracles happen, but sadly not the sort of miracle she and her family truly needs. Against the wishes of her mother, Jo’s older sister and friends start playing along with these fantasies, pretending that Jo really is a superhero, and that she is the village’s savior.
Some disguise themselves and pretend to be bad guys. Others in the village make it seem that Jo saves the day with her powers to control minds and stop time. But what happens when Jo thinks she really does have superpowers, even as she grows weaker by the day? Or is she more aware than she seems of everything that is going on around her?
“Supa Modo” (the title is regional Swahili dialect meaning “Super Kid”) is not just the story of how one girl finds a way to make the most of the time she has left, but how a family and community come together to help her realize her dreams and ensure her memory stays alive. Tenderly made and intelligently written, it is one of the best live-action family films of recent years.
There is always the danger this sort of material can become too mawkish and cloying, especially when aimed at a younger audience. The filmmakers and cast never take a wrong step. Of course, “Supa Modo” can’t help but pull our heartstrings, but for once it is because we are watching real people dealing with a real problem, a heartbreaking crisis some of us have experienced before.
Something that must be emphasized is that this a true family film, one for meant for people of all ages to watch together and then discuss afterwards. At just under 75 minutes, it’s short enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome for younger viewers, long enough to get them involved with the story and characters.
Parental guidance is still advised due to the unavoidable emotional impact it will have on certain audience members (also, it is best that your child is old enough to both read and tolerate subtitles). It will particularly hit home for younger viewers who have lost a sibling or friend to cancer or have one who is undergoing treatment.
But the movie handles the inevitable tragedy of the situation so tastefully and realistically, that it serves as an antidote to the sentimentality of Hollywood treatments of the same subject matter. Think Rob Reiner’s insultingly bad “The Bucket List,” for example.
It proves you can be entertaining while continuing to take your subject matter with the gravity it deserves.
“Supa Modo” also surprises by finding an uncommon degree of thoughtfulness and thematic complexity in a family-friendly setting. Among other things, the film raises questions of not just about how we deal with illness and loss, but the ethics of our coping mechanisms in the face of tragedy, especially when children are involved. In particular, the movie poses important questions about teaching the crucial distinction between fantasy and reality to them.
Naturally, we want to encourage their creativity and help their imaginations to flourish, but are there times when we shouldn’t be doing so? When we indulge in our children’s games of make-believe, are we really just lying to them?
Shouldn’t we be preparing them for the real world?
For that matter, do we as adults continue to indulge in our own fantasies in order to escape the pain and tragedy of real life as well, only we’re not as honest about it as when we were younger?
The movie does ultimately argue that fantasy and imagination have positive uses when used properly, but it’s a very nuanced affirmation. There is much thematic richness embedded throughout the film. Expect your children to ask many questions long after it’s over.
Inevitable comparisons will be made to the real-life situation of “Black Panther” actor Chadwick Boseman. The late actor continued to work in the MCU despite his own terminal cancer diagnosis. Boseman went out of his way to visit children battling cancer in hospitals across the country, ensuring that he would remain a role model to many long after he was gone.
Film buffs will also likely be reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s classic “Ikiru.” Although dealing with very different cultures, they not only have surprisingly similar premises but teach similar lessons about how life’s true fulfillment is found in helping others, even if takes the looming spectre of terminal illness to make us realize this fact.
The main difference is that the protagonist in Kurosawa’s film (Takashi Shimura) learns this lesson in defiance of an impersonal bureaucracy and seemingly indifferent social environment.
“Supa Modo” is not just about how a young girl serves as an inspiration to an entire community through her actions and optimism, but how the community itself sets an example for the rest of us as well.
A.A. Kidd is a freelance writer and sessional university instructor in Canada, where he proudly volunteers for the Windsor International Film Festival.