Set in the slums of Uganda, Queen of Katwe tells the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a teen-ager who becomes a junior chess champion.
Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay!) has made a formulaic, against-all-odds story but manages to freshen it by focusing on a game not often associated with sports movies and by her commitment to showing life among the impoverished folks struggling to survive outside of the capital city of Kampala.
Nair supplements the work of a young and appealing cast with work from two seasoned performers. Lupita Nyong'o portrays Naku Harriet, a widowed mother whose energies are devoted mostly to eking out a living. Whatever doesn't fall under that heading can seem superfluous to Harriet, and that includes her daughter's chess abilities.
Wyong'o is joined by David Oyelowo, as an earnest fellow who runs the church-oriented youth center where Phiona learns to play chess. Oyelowo's character eventually must decide whether his job as a youth counselor is temporary or represents a true calling.
Oyelowo's Robert Katende becomes Phiona's mentor, and begins to act as liaison between Phiona and the mother who -- at least initially -- can't understand how chess will help her daughter endure the rigors of a hardscrabble life.
Phiona and her chess-playing cohorts from the neighborhood become the movie's underdogs. And we root for them when Robert bucks the odds by enrolling his charges in a chess tournament usually reserved for well-off kids who attend a private school.
Watching Nalwanga's confidence grow as she embraces her gift for developing complex strategies at the chess board might be reward enough for any movie, but Queen of Katwe not only has us pulling for a kid with a great gift, but for everything she represents to the people who surround her.
Like most good sports movies, it's undergirded by hope.