Canadian journalist Jay Bahadur (Evan Peters) arrives in Somalia as an opportunist and leaves an advocate. Writer/director Bryan Buckley treats Bahadur's 2008-09 odyssey, chronicled in his nonfiction book The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World, as an elucidating examination of kinship more than a biopic. This formative experience shaped his professional life, and Bahadur's mission as a reporter became portraying Somalis as fully-rounded individuals instead of cartoon villains.
Buckley shares that perspective. His Oscar-nominated short Asad is about a Somali boy's coming of age during wartime, and Bahadur's contacts in Somalia continually surprise and enlighten him, especially translator Abdirizak (Barkhad Abdi), whose sly wit and emotional support are invaluable, and Maryan (Sabrina Hassan Abdulle), who challenges Jay's naivete and romanticism. But there's a tension between two competing narratives.
While Buckley aims to show Somalis as they see themselves, Bahadur has been cast in the white savior role, even if Jay's a "Don't blame me, I'm Canadian" apologist for Western ignorance of African history and culture. Buckley (The Bronze) also injects Bahadur's perspective with satirical exaggeration expressed in nightmares and hallucinatory revelations. (The Pirates of Somalia was originally called Where the White Man Runs Away.)
Peters effectively portrays Bahadur's maturation from a self-involved bumbler to knowledgeable writer, but the real stars here are Somali. In a starkly different role, Abdi displays the charismatic intensity that got him an Oscar nomination for Captain Phillips, and Hassan Abdulle radiates humor, warmth and intelligence. Jay is smitten with Maryan, but it's his love for Somalia that commences a lifelong commitment.