In the first scene of Likarion Wainaina’s “Supa Modo“, we are introduced to our bright-eyed protagonist Jo. Perched in front of a screen, she is among friends watching a kung fu movie. Their smiling faces suggest that they aren’t unlike your average, carefree child. And for this brief moment, they are. But we soon learn that these are patients in a children’s hospital, many of them with terminal illnesses.
This careful balance of the magic of imagination and the despair of mortality is the hallmark of “Supa Modo”. The film follows Jo’s exploits after a bleak prognosis, which sees her being taken home by her fiercely protective mother to live out her remaining days. Left alone to entertain herself while her single mother goes to work, she creates an alter ego called Supa Modo, inspired by her beloved superhero characters. While these flights of fancy are cause for concern for her mother, her doting sister Mwix encourages her imagination by playing along. And soon enough, Mwix gets the entire village involved in an elaborate game of make-believe, which evolves into a grand project beyond anything their village has seen before.
Indeed, the allure of the impossible is a powerful driving force throughout “Supa Modo”. Though the film never shies away from Jo’s precarious health, it rarely succumbs to the typical melancholy of cancer dramas. Through endearing dream sequences and heartwarming displays of kindness among this vibrant community, the narrative and its protagonist make the most of every moment. Wainaina’s empathetic direction truly brings out the rich character and life surrounding Jo, with the decorated walls of her bedroom and quaint local cinema further emphasizing the invigorating influence of movies in her life. Though the uplifting human relationships in the real world are touching to watch, “Supa Modo” is at its heart, a love letter to cinema.
In that regard, the screenplay saves the best for last, culminating in a movie within a movie which will surely bring out your inner child. An incredible communal effort, its rose-colored view of society may test your suspension of disbelief. But its enthusiasm and creativity showcases will likely win you over, bringing to mind the beautiful Afrocentricity that made “Black Panther” such a highlight of the film year. With little more than basic equipment, makeshift props and an idea to believe in, the final act is a true delight in its unbridled humanity.
There’s an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. In the case of “Supa Modo”, it takes a village to make that child the happiest girl in the world and live out her dreams in the last days of her short life. If that’s not a resounding argument for the power of cinema, I don’t know what is.
“Supa Modo” is the Kenyan submission for the 2018 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.