As a whole, the Canadian War Witch is an extremely solid, sobering account of a teenager's descent to hell during a civil war in an unspecified African nation, made with extremely clear-eyed restraint from harangues, sentiment, message-mongering, or anything else that would cheapen its central character's suffering and fight. That this still qualifies as a disappointment is due entirely to the bits and pieces of War Witch, mostly at the beginning, that are the most impressive cinema I've seen so far in 2013: at its best, the film attains a kind of impressionistic, borderline-experimental mode of storytelling through pure imagery and fragmented narration, something like you'd get if you cross-bred Terrence Malick with a Rwanda documentary. Unexpected for something of its rather self-conscious pedigree (it won a bucketful of the newly-rebranded Canadian Academy awards, and was nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar), the film is willing to play vague and elliptical about things like characterisation and emotion, right up until it's not. And that "not" is where an astonishing movie has to settle for being a good, but significantly familiar one.

War Witch (a better English title than a direct translation of the French Rebelle would be; incidentally, Rebelle was the French-language release title of Pixar's Brave, making this all a particularly zesty clusterfuck) covers three years in the life of Komona (Rachel Mwanza) who at the age of 12 is compelled to execute her own parents by a rebel commander (Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien) who forcibly abducts her to be a soldier, finding later that she apparently has some magic ability which makes her valuable to the rebellion's chief leader (Mizinga Mwinga); who at the age of 13 is able to run away with the boy Magicien (Serge Kanyinda), whom she marries and with whom she spends a brief idyll at the countryside home of his uncle, the Butcher (Ralph Prosper); and who at the age of 14 is raped and impregnated by the same commander. It her unborn infant that serves as the audience for her miserable story, told as she journeys back to her girlhood home in the hopes of exorcising the visions she constantly sees of her parents as dead-eyed white ghosts, silently following her throughout her travails.

Boil it all the way down, and there's not much that's terribly original here: life in war-torn Africa is unspeakably harrowing, and it forces children to grow up quickly in ways that none of us would prefer. Certainly, there are even lengthy stretches of War Witch where it all feels pretty standard-issue, too: the extended passage where Komona and Magicien hunt for a white rooster, without which she refuses to marry him, drifts a bit too far into wacky travails and local color, and while it's clearly meant to be a break for the characters and audience from the non-stop grisliness of the rest of the film, it goes on long enough that it starts to feel like the movie has drifted off-course more than anything. That being said, accusing the film of repeating a lot of "things are wretched in Africa" material presupposes that anybody in the West has actually seen so many movies with that scenario compared to e.g. movies based on magazines published by just one comic book imprint, which is clearly inaccurate. More correct to say that, since so few movies about Africans in Africa - as compared with movies about white Euro/Americans experiencing a mediated version of Africa - ever see release in the States, the ones that make it stand out, and they're similar enough that it thus becomes easy to lump them all together.

But enough of that: superficial resemblance to a scant handful of other movies in just some of its scenes notwithstanding, War Witch is an awfully damn good movie, and when writer-director Kim Nguyen allows himself to open up a bit from the most literal possible dramatisation of events, the results are exceedingly potent. Especially in the film's opening sequence, when Komona is almost entirely silent, and long patches of the film go by simply placing grueling imagery in front of us, with an erratic, almost non-representational sound mix underneath the scenes of chaotic violence in the blue-tinged jungle. It's the finest kind of cinema, the sort that uses pure technique to create an emotional state (here, one of confusion and terror), tightly linked to Komona's own POV.

It's hard not to be a little disappointed in the places where that drifts away for a bit, but even at its most typical, War Witch is still hard to complain about: Mwanza's performance, which only really comes out in the more straightforward narrative scenes, is excellent for a young first-timer, especially given Nguyen's refusal to give her any big acting showcase moment; throughout, her performance is reigned in tightly and communicated largely through silent expressions, and the actress is impressively quiet, offering hints but no showy expressions of the building anger and exhaustion of her character.

Besides, for all that its depiction of Africa in strife is a bit miserabilist and unimaginative, it still packs a wallop: Mwanza's measured reading of the narration and the slow pace of the directing making some of the more ghastly details feel prickly and fatalistic rather than just depressing, particularly in one of the film's most haunting moments, when Komona frankly informs her unborn child that she'll not be sharing any of the Butcher's stories, because they're too dark, even for the context of darkness that War Witch dabbles in so freely for so long. Yes, it all boils down to "man, things are shitty in sub-Saharan Africa", as told by a filmmaker not from sub-Saharan Africa; but as long as things remain shitty there, stories like this will always have a depressing amount of currency.