It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“The Power of One” begins with a canvas that involves all of the modern South African dilemma, and ends as a boxing movie. Somewhere in between, it loses its way. The film, which spans the years surrounding the Second World War, tells the story of a young English-speaking boy who is sent to an Afrikaanslanguage boarding school, where a neo-Nazi clique makes his life miserable. He fights back, and keeps fighting back when, as a young man, he becomes friends with Africans who are part of a developing political movement.
His story was first told in a thoughtful historical best seller by Bryce Courtenay, who tried to give some sense of what it was like to grow up as an English-speaking liberal in a country where apartheid and aspects of the police state were combined in an unholy marriage with parliamentary democracy. In a sense, the story of “The Power of One” could continue right down to the March 17 referendum in which a majority of South Africa's white voters ratified de Klerk's decision to move toward black majority rule. That would be the happy ending.
But “The Power of One” wants to be more than the story of a young man whose life reflects the times of his country. It also wants to be a box office hit, and in playing the notes of mass entertainment, it loses its purpose. You can almost feel the film slipping out of the hands of its director, John G. Avildsen, as the South African reality is upstaged by the standard cliches of a fight picture.
The hero, nicknamed P.K., is played by Stephen Dorff as a perpetual outsider who is victimized at an Afrikaans boarding school by young students whose idol, in the years before World War Two, is Hitler. They stage secret meetings and mock trials, kill his beloved pet chicken, and are ready to humiliate the boy in a bizarre ceremony before the authorities finally step in. These scenes are meant to show the lasting antagonism between the two white tribes of South Africa, the Afrikaaners and the British, although in reality, given the poverty and powerlessness of most Afrikaaners in the 1930s, it would have been much more likely (if less tidy) to show an Afrikaaner boy taunted at an English boarding school.