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‘First They Killed My Father’ Review: Angelina Jolie Balances Poetry and Horror in Cambodian Saga

A child endures the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in a film that’s more admirable than it is affecting

“Commendable” feels like a backhanded way to compliment a movie, but for better or worse, it suits “First They Killed My Father.” An adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir of the same name, Angelina Jolie’s film tells an important story, detailing the devastating reign of the Khmer Rouge through the eyes of a young girl.

But in between its unsparing depiction of both Cambodia’s vast beauty and its history of brutality, Jolie’s latest can’t quite decide how glossy or graphic it wants to be, ultimately settling for alternately sobering and pretty but less emotionally effective than visually.

Newcomer Sreymoch Sareum plays Loung, one of seven children living a comfortable middle-class life in Phnom Penh with their mother (Socheata Sveng) and father (Kompheak Phoeung). As U.S. forces make an exodus from the country in the wake of the Vietnam War, Khmer Rouge soldiers pour in to fill the void, forcing families like hers to abandon their homes for labor camps where they are subjected to inhuman living conditions.

Attempting to hide Pa’s past as a government worker allied with the Americans, the family stays under the radar and succumbs to the increasing cruelty of the Khmer regime. But after Khmer soldiers send away Loung’s oldest siblings, Ma instructs Loung to claim she’s an orphan, sending her off to another camp where she might receive better care. Loung instead becomes a foot soldier in the Khmer’s child armies, where she learns to bury mines and fire weapons as she prays to be reunited with her family.

A handful of films have attempted to chronicle the horrors of traumatic events through the eyes of children — from “Forbidden Games” to “Empire of the Sun” to “Beasts of No Nation” — and Jolie’s film matches its predecessors in terms of intimacy and specificity. From Loung’s gentle whining when she learns they won’t be returning home after three days “as the soldiers promised” to her desperate patience navigating a jungle full of mines, Jolie carefully portrays her slow and dehumanizing acceptance of the Khmer’s occupancy turning her world upside down.

At the same time, there’s almost too much poise in Sareum’s performance as Loung, or perhaps Jolie coaxed too much stillness from her; there’s a difference between stoicism as a character-defining quality and a child’s lack of ability to process the reality she’s been presented, but it feels impossible to know where the line is drawn in the film. (She seems only to cry a handful of times, and regards the remainder of their treatment with a repetitive sort of shellshocked silence.) Jolie seems to be suggesting, via her direction of the young actress, that this kind of devastation is so common in Third World countries that its inhabitants accept it more readily than American audiences might.

Paired with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), Jolie’s camera captures astonishingly beautiful images, even in the midst of some truly horrific moments: among others, the populace of Phnom Penh trudging into the Cambodian countryside from above as soldiers hover menacingly; the warming glow of a campfire where Loung and her family have just cooked a giant spider for their supper; and Loung and her fellow child soldiers battered with rain as they stand in waist-deep water holding AK-47s.

But too many of these moments seems to have been engineered for visual rather than dramatic impact, creating startling moments that, again, one doesn’t quite know whether to be repulsed by or to admire their technical virtuosity. (Either way, it’s worth trekking out to a theater to see “First They Killed My Father” on the big screen, even if it’s already streaming on Netflix.)

Of course, so many of Jolie’s choices reiterate what is undoubtedly a sincere and earnest attempt to pay tribute to Ung’s resilience and to honor the people whose lives were lost, not only enlisting Ung to co-write the adaptation, but also in shooting the film in Cambodia using local actors speaking their native tongue. Additionally, Jolie’s adopted son Maddox, who is Cambodian, is also listed as an executive producer. But Jolie the woke celebrity and Jolie the artist seem caught at a crossroads with this film, juggling instincts that put her inner Terrence Malick and Ken Burns at odds with one another (never mind a scene-setting opening montage of images set to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil”).

In other words, Jolie can’t decide whether she wants to be a poet or a field reporter, and the combination results in an important story that’s frequently, breathtakingly beautiful but ultimately more admirable than affecting.