Angelina Jolie is making it quite clear she’s not interested in trifling material when she’s behind the camera.
Granted, the 1970s-set “By the Sea” (which starred Jolie and then-husband Brad Pitt) from a couple of years back was turgid melodrama — but Jolie the director has far more often addressed serious matters of the globe, from the documentary “A Place in Time” to the Bosnian war movie “In the Land of Blood and Honey” to the World War II prison camp drama “Unbroken” to her latest work, which is her most personal and most involving film yet: “First They Killed My Father (A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers).”
Based on the memoir from Loung Ung (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jolie), “First They Killed My Father” is set during the short but unforgettably brutal Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia in the mid- to late 1970s, during which some 2 million died from starvation, disease and execution.
The story is told through the eyes of a child.
After a montage of news footage and film clips serving as a brief history lesson and establishing the time period — the United States has recently withdrawn from Cambodia — we’re introduced to five-year-old Loung (Sreymoch Sareum) and her tight-knit, loving, middle-class family in Phnom Penh.
It’s a simple, warm life. Loung happily flits about in a dress and pigtails, playing with her siblings, drawing and coloring, singing along to a pop song on the radio.
But that peaceful world is shattered when the Communist Khmer Rouge soldiers take command, forcing residents to evacuate and demanding they give up all material possessions and any signs of Western culture.
Families are separated. Adults are summarily executed. Teenagers are sent off to labor camps. Luong eventually winds up in a camp where she is trained as a soldier, even though she is still a few years shy of her 10th birthday.
Jolie and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (the great lensman on a number of Danny Boyle films, including “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours”) do a magnificent job of giving “First They Killed My Father” the look and heft of an epic. This movie is filled with memorable shots, from sweeping overhead visuals of enslaved labor working the fields to intense and sometimes brutal sequences with little or no dialogue. (“First They Killed My Father” is in the Cambodian language Khmer, with English subtitles, adding to the authenticity of the material.)
Much of what transpires is reflected in the facial expressions of Sreymoch Sareum’s Loung. It’s a wonderful and natural performance from a non-professional. (And it would hardly be a stretch to surmise Jolie was a major guiding force behind the performance.)
“First They Killed My Father” occasionally strays into overly sentimental territory — and with a running time of 2 hours, 16 minutes, the storyline stalls a bit at times. Mostly, though, this is an accomplished and moving and solid drama from a director who seems on the verge of giving us a great movie sometime soon.
Netflix presents a film directed by Angelina Jolie and written by Jolie and Loung Ung, based on Loung’s memoir. No MPAA rating. In Khmer with English subtitles. Running time: 136 minutes. Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre and on Netflix.