J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

PSIFF ’19: Supa Modo

Fortunately, the so-called “Dark Age” of comics never reached Kenya. Jo is a young fan who does not need her superheroes to die, grow bitter, or turn evil. She could use some of their invincibility, as she faces her mortality in Likarion Wainaina’s Supa Modo (trailer here), Kenya’s official foreign language Academy Award submission, which screens during this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Nine-year-old Jo and her friends in the children’s ward love superheroes and martial arts stars, thanks in part to the screenings arranged by Mike, a local wedding videographer and budding Tarantino-style filmmaker. Unfortunately, the latest prognosis is so serious, her mother has taken her home to spend her final weeks with family. However, Jo’s older sister Mwix is honest enough to understand Jo might have been happier back in the hospital with her friends and their movies. To keep her spirits up, Mwix concocts several elaborate charades, placing Jo in the position of a real-life superhero: “Supa Modo.” Frankly, her schemes start to go a bit too far, but she is able to re-focus her efforts on one last project Jo has in mind.

No doubt about it, Supa Modo jerks the tears like nobody’s business. It shares many common themes and motifs with Ian Fitzgibbon’s underappreciated Death of a Superhero, but Supa Modo manages to be considerable brighter, more colorful, and ultimately more upbeat—even with a considerably younger ailing protagonist. In fact, it is a sweet valentine to geek culture that will leave even the most jaded viewers misty-eyed, at the least.

Supa Modo is also consistently polished, featuring a professional-grade ensemble. Banish your skepticism, because this is nothing like the high-energy, ultra-low-budget weirdness churned out by Nollywood and Ugawood (Nigeria and Uganda). This is a heartfelt work of quality cinema, boasting some terrific performances. Stycie Waweru is so earnest and charming as Jo, it makes her later scenes especially devastating. Nyawara Ndambia is also a real standout as the sensitive sister, Mwix.

The lazy takeaway from Supa Modo is the whole “it takes a village” thing, but you could also say it takes a Justice League or Jackie Chan. Jo gets her strength from their examples, as well as the support of her family. It is all quite sweet and sad, leaving viewers emotionally wrecked. Recommended for superhero fans in the mood for something a little more real and grounded, Supa Modo screens this morning (1/5) and Monday (1/7), as part of the 2019 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

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