Review by Sean Boelman
Nigeria’s submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature, The Milkmaid, is one of those films that the importance of is undeniable. However, despite timely themes and some truly powerful moments, its frequently heavy-handed nature holds it back from being as affecting as it could be.
The movie follows a young woman in Sub-Saharan Africa who, searching for her missing sister, ends up confronting a group of religious extremists and finds that her quest may not be as obvious as she had anticipated. This is one of those films where the story is relatively straightforward, but the cultural context is what allows it to shine.
There is a lot to be said here about the patriarchal nature of religious extremists. What stands out about writer-director Desmond Ovbiagele’s approach to this theme is that he does not present their evil in a way that makes them feel like caricatures. Rather, he explores how their corruption led to their loss of humanity and compassion.
The movie does struggle significantly with trying to keep its focus. The emotional through-line of the story is the protagonist’s commitment to her family and trying to rescue her sister, but this ends up taking the backseat to other plot points at various points in the film. Although these are interesting, it creates a disappointing distance between the viewer and the story.
It is easy to identify with the protagonist right off the bat thanks to the tragic nature of her story. She serves as a great lens to this world with which a majority of the audience is sure to be unfamiliar. And while the other characters have much more obvious arcs, her nuanced inner journey is compelling, if a little underdeveloped.
Nieta Kalunta’s leading performance is excellent to the point of making it hard to believe that this is her first role. It’s a powerful turn, largely thanks to the fact that she doesn’t succumb to the potentially melodramatic tendencies of the movie. Maryam Booth is also good in her supporting role, but Kalunta runs this show.
Ovbiagele’s directorial style is probably the biggest weakness of this film. Although the movie looks very messy, it never feels haphazard. All of the choices that Ovbiagele makes seem deliberate, but they simply don’t work. An overbearing score and rough cinematography really draw the viewer out of the film.
The Milkmaid is a solid movie overall, but the elements are there for this to have been great. Still, it offers an interesting snapshot of a different part of the world, and this makes it more than interesting enough to check out.
The Milkmaid is screening as a part of the Pan African Film Festival, which runs online February 28-March 14.