Review: Supa Modo (2018)
Likarion Wainaina’s Supa Modo has an easy appeal that’s hard to argue with, even if at times it seems more like a children’s Make-a-Wish commercial than a complex narrative in its own right. It follows a terminally-ill girl named Jo (Stycie Waweru) who’s obsessed with superheroes. When her mother, Kathryn (Maryanne Nungo), takes her out of the hospital to spend her final months at home, Jo’s sister, Mwix (Nyawara Ndambia), convinces the residents of their sleepy Kenyan village to pretend Jo has superpowers like her favourite movie characters. It’s a narrative conceit familiar to sitcoms and news stories alike, and it’s obviously heartwarming to watch a community rally behind a sick child, even if it occasionally dips into the type of saccharine sweetness that sinks so many Sundance-ready independent films. Luckily, the heartwarming nature of the film doesn’t obliterate the cruel reality of Jo’s circumstances. Thus, Supa Modo is a slam-dunk crowd-pleaser, even if it’s infinitely more interesting once it abandons the feel-good vibe and digs deeper into Jo’s obsessions and why playing pretend empowers her so much.
The first images in Supa Modo are of Jo and other children at the hospital watching kung-fu flicks provided by a local cinema owner named Mike (Johnson Gitau Chege). Soon after, we see that Jo’s walls are plastered with posters of Marvel movies and Jackie Chan kung-fu pictures. She argues with her friends about whether Iron Man is better than Superman, or what power she’d most want to have (flying, obviously). Jo’s obsession with moving images of heroism is apparent from the first moments of the film, and key to the film’s ultimate impact later on, because despite all the focus on make believe, the movie is actually much more about how movies define us than about simply pretending nice things for a sick child.
The key to Supa Modo being more than a crowd-pleaser is a moment midway through where Jo reveals her awareness of the village’s ruse. Mwix has been so satisfied with her orchestration of the villagers and the scenes of Jo dispatching robbers are so earnest and cute that you’re a bit blindsided by Jo’s self-awareness; she’s no fool, as no kid with a terminal illness would be. She just knows that the make believe makes her feel strong and makes her own sad story seem more like the empowering stories she sees on the screen, so she goes along with the ruse. However cynical we can be about movies in the modern world, it’s easy to underestimate the psychological impact they have on children and how stories of heroism and good triumphing over evil instill children with a sense of hope that adulthood picks away at.
If what came before is predictable and a tad too sweet to seem real, what follows is genuinely fascinating, even if it dips back around to empowerment by the end. Mwix convinces Mike to make a movie of Jo as a superhero, and the villagers serve as the cast and crew. This shift in the narrative makes the film less a celebration of a lie than a celebration of storytelling, and being able to define our own narratives, which is much more empowering than any fictional ruse (no matter how superficially satisfying) would be. Furthermore, the do-it-yourself filmmaking has a charming low-fi quality to it and the way the film-within-a-film interweaves western and Chinese filmmaking styles into the Kenyan setting also serves as a subtle commentary on how Africa continues to be colonized in the modern day, even if it’s simply through pop-culture.
The second half is not seamless—for instance, there is a key narrative overreach at one point, and the actual film as presented in the closing moments is too slick, losing the charming DIY aesthetic that it has during the scenes of the filmmaking process. It would’ve been more effective if the film-within-the-film was as ragged as Mike’s camcorder, instead of bearing the same Sundance style that Wainaina shoots Supa Modo with. But the performances are good and the ways that the film functions as a commentary on movie-making itself is hopeful, especially considering the film itself is made by filmmakers in a country largely lacking a substantial film industry.
At its best, Supa Modo is an exploration of how the stories we watch define the lives we want to live, and how the culture we consume affects our sense of identity and purpose. At its worst, it’s simple wish-fulfillment for a sick kid. It’s hard to quibble too much with something so earnest.
6 out of 10
Supa Modo (2018, Kenya/Germany)
Directed by Likarion Wainaina; written by Silas Miami, Mugambi Nthiga, Wanjeri Gakuru, Kamau Wa Ndung’u, and Likarion Wainaina; starring Stycie Waweru, Maryanne Nungo, Nyawara Ndambia, Johnson Gitau Chege.