There’s no sugar-coating what happens in “Adú,'” a Spanish film about the trials of human migration in Africa. The pall of death hangs over it. A child endures horrors no child should experience, and all of those deaths directly impact him.
However Netflix is pitching this, “Adú” is grim going and nobody’s idea of a sentimental or even hopeful tale.
Actually, it’s three tales — that of the title character, a little Cameroonian boy (Moustapha Oumarou) who looks to be about seven, a globetrotting wildlife charity representative (veteran Spanish character actor Luis Tosar) trying, in vain, the save elephants in Cameroon, and Spanish border guards facing the hordes who charge the fence in Spanish Morocco, trying to escape Africa for Europe.
It’s an unwieldy structure that screenwriter Alejandro Hernández (“The Motive”) works out, with those second and third stories less integral to the overall theme of the film, and less interesting to boot. But even in Spain (and for Netflix), you’ve got to throw some familiar faces and names at the public or nobody will want to see your movie about what Africans go through to reach Spain.
The mob at the border of Melila, in Spanish Morocco, is where an African, screaming that he is a refugee, gets hung up on the razor wire, fights to free himself and fights the Spanish guards trying to get him loose. He falls and dies.
Depending on what happened, careers could end, at the very least.
In Cameroon, little Adú is getting a cycling lesson from his sister Alila (Zayiddiya Dissou) when they stumble upon poachers killing and butchering an elephant. They flee, ditching the bike.
There will be consequences for that. The local game wardens are always too late to save the elephant, “the most important animal in the park” (in English, French and Spanish — with subtitles). But their NGO advisor, Gonzalo (Tosar) figures the bike is the clue.
So do the thugs who show up at Adú and Alika’s stilt house on the outskirts of Mbama. The children free. Their mother isn’t so lucky.
But their father earlier made arrangements for them to come north. Their auntie drops them off with the mule, not thinking for a minute that human traffickers are slime the world over. He takes them to the airport, tells them how to stow away on a jet, and ditches them. It isn’t even going to Spain.
Meanwhile, Gonzalo’s being ordered out of the country for not getting along with the locals, focusing only on the animals he wants to protect. His troubled, flirtatious druggy of a daughter (Anna Castillo) picks this moment for a visit. He frets and lectures. But at least the rebellious “adult” Sandra gets a free Cameroonian bike out of it.
Meanwhile, the guards are getting their stories straight, even though the fence incident seems pretty clearly an accident that resulted from the actions of a chaotic mob.
But it is Adú’s quest that holds our interest here. He stumbles from Cameroon to Senegal and Mauritania, copes with more death, attempted sexual assault and a pummeling he takes when he and a new traveling companion (Adam Nourou) try to steal food.
Will they, or at least he, make it to Morocco? Will all three stories neatly align, at some point?
Director Salvador Calvo gets to show us a lot of Africa, from the teeming cities below the Sahara to the posh living in the formerly European enclave city of Alhucemas.
The cast is sharp, with young Oumarou, Dissou and Nourou the standouts.
But the three-interlocking stories structure is unwieldy at best, frustrating most of the time. The linking up of stories is less important than the stories themselves, and Adú’s agonizing journey is one we miss when one of the guards is having an attack of conscience, or the rebellious daughter is acting out against her environmentalist dad by buy a “fake” elephant tusk.
It’s a grim slog for such a mixed-bag of a movie, but the one story that matters almost makes up for the dullness of those stories that matter less.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, violence, deaths, sexual content, much of it involving children
Cast: Moustapha Oumarou, Luis Tosar, Adam Nourou, Álvaro Cervantes, Anna Castillo and Zayiddiya Dissou
Credits: Directed by Salvador Calvo, script by Alejandro Hernández. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:5