Three Rwandan children bid to achieve their lifelong dream: to take part in the opening ceremony of the 2010 Football World Cup in Johannesburg. On the way to the vital selection trial, disaster strikes when Fabrice (Roger Nsengiyumva), Dudu (Eriya Ndayambaje) and Beatrice (Sanyu Joanita Kintu) board the wrong bus and cross into the Congo; without papers, money or a believable story, they are escorted to a refugee camp. But with considerable ingenuity and sass (and a World Cup wall chart for a map), the trio escape the camp and set off through the endless horizons of Africa in pursuit of their dream, picking up along the way a 'dream team' of displaced kids, who help them negotiate a series of glorious, dangerous and hilarious adventures.

2.5
An earnest, treacly tale of youthful trio’s long trek through Africa.

This incredulous tale of three young Rwandans who embark on a 5,000 km journey to South Africa with little money, only the clothes they’re wearing and heaps of determination is just that: unbelievable.

The filmmakers clearly want to impart positive messages about how plucky individuals can rise above poverty, disease and crime on the continent, but the sugar coating is so thick that Africa United may be too saccharine for mainstream audiences.

What might have been a compelling comedy/drama from director Debs Gardner-Paterson and screenwriter Rhidian Brook – both first timers – instead has the sensibility of a pan-African children’s movie in which the characters fight off or evade every threat and they remain remarkably cheerful and well-scrubbed despite the arduous journey.

The attempts at authenticity also take a hit from the erratic performances of the mostly neophyte cast, whose over-enunciation suggests they spent too long with their drama and dialogue coaches.

The narrative does touch on such vexing issues as child soldiers, sex trafficking, class differences and the prevalence of HIV and AIDS, but in a superficial fashion which softens the impact.

The protagonists are Dudu (Eriya Ndayambaje), a precocious, soccer-mad 13-year-old orphan, his stoic younger sister Beatrice (Sanyu Joanita Kintu) and Dudu’s prodigy Fabrice (Roger Nsengiyumva), who comes from a well-off family.

A promising footballer, Fabrice is invited by a FIFA scout to go to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, to audition for the opening ceremony of the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg.

Defying his mother’s wishes, Fabrice sets off with his self-appointed manager Dudu and Beatrice only to discover they’re on the wrong bus which drops them in the Congo.

Thereafter they resolve to continue onto South Africa, travelling via a stolen Jeep, boat, truck, cart and bus, hitching rides with strangers and when all else fails, on foot. En route they’re joined by taciturn former boy soldier Foreman George (Yves Dusenge), whom they meet in a squalid refugee camp for kids, and Celeste (Sherrie Silver), a teenage sex worker. Foreman George has a lot of cash, which at least makes the trip affordable until he is deprived of the dosh.

Danger looms in various forms but only a brush with two thugs, one of them George’s half-brother, carries any real menace. In most cases, the youngsters are able to disarm, outwit or outrun their adversaries all too easily.

Each of the major characters is given a brief back story, typified by Celeste who explains she ran away from home to avoid marrying the only man in her village who could afford her 'bride price’ of six cows. Foreman George is haunted by memories of his misdeeds but renounces violence.

The adults are portrayed either as bumbling villains or improbably sympathetic and supportive, such as the border guards whom the kids encounter as they enter South Africa.

Of the young cast, Ndayambaje, whom the filmmakers discovered in Uganda where he was part of a theatre and dance troupe, is the most natural, convincing and funny as the street-wise hustler Dudu. He also brings a touch of pathos to an otherwise light, breezy tale.

Gardner-Paterson’s roots are in Rwanda, where her mother was born. Despite no doubt noble intentions, her film can’t overcome the deficiencies in Brook’s script but she shows a felicitous talent with a series of inventive stop motion animated sequences which illustrate a lengthy, apocryphal story related by Dudu.

The film shot by Sean Bobbitt has the glossy look of a travelogue whereas a bit more dust and grime would have imbued the story with a grittier ambience.