Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
Liyana Movie Poster Image
Inspiring, unique film tells two stories of perseverance.
  • NR
  • 2018
  • 76 minutes

Parents say

age 9+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 7+
Based on 1 review

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

We think this movie stands out for:

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Life can be hard, but it's your story, and you write your own ending. Perseverance, courage are strong themes, and children's story helps build empathy with viewers.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Everyone featured is inspiring. Fictional character Liyana, who cares for her twin brothers and ailing grandmother after her parents' death, is incredibly brave, admirably perseverant. The real Swazi children who wrote her story have an upbeat, positive approach to life despite adversity most Americans can't fathom. Adults who work in the orphanage, nurses in the clinic, and storyteller Gcina Nhlophe are examples of using your life to make a positive difference in others' lives.


Fictional story depicted via hand-drawn images includes beating by abusive father, gun-wielding kidnappers invading home and beating young girl bloody and tying her up, and child using pan as weapon. A mother dies from illness (nongraphic but sad), a monster menaces and attacks, and frightening moments come from hungry predators in the wild. No violence shown in footage of orphans, but their true story is quite upsetting/scary: Their parents have died, most likely of AIDS; one child was left alone for days after;  another's guardian tied him to a rope to keep him in the house. These traumas are frankly discussed. Also subtly implied that a couple of the children have HIV.


Children tell a story about a married father who meets a woman in a club and goes to her home, where he contracts HIV. No depiction -- verbal or visual -- is given to explain that they had sex. Childbirth is part of the story.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Storybook father drinks to excess, makes poor decisions, with severe consequences for him and his family. The father and another woman smoke cigarettes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Liyana is a powerful, award-winning documentary about a group of Swazi orphans who create a story as a form of creative therapy. The film's innovative style mixes footage of the children's real day-to-day life with beautifully illustrated art depicting their fictional tale about a girl named Liyana; it's like two films in one. Liyana's story reflects the children's own lives, which can be shockingly sad and dark. Elements include an abusive, drunk father; gun-wielding kidnappers who abduct small children for human trafficking; and parents dying from AIDS. But the story also has a positive, heroic ending that will give viewers hope about the future of its young authors. Liyana is an extremely effective tool for building empathy and opening perspectives; it also emphasizes the importance of courage and perseverance. While the fictional story is captivating, the slower, quiet pace of the children's lives may leave some younger viewers restless. But sticking with it is definitely worth the effort; this is the kind of film that makes a valuable, lasting impact.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byletterman23 October 31, 2019

What a powerful movie

We were on a school trip to see Liyana and the kids loved it and we loved it ! Powerful messages , awesome narration and a wow format with animation and real li... Continue reading
Parent Written byzinhle November 22, 2018

loved it

Your kids should watch it.
Kid, 11 years old August 18, 2019

Ok not too bad

I think its quite great actually good for young audicences

What's the story?

LIYANA follows five Swazi children as they craft a fictional story under the guidance of award-winning storyteller Gcina Mhlophe. Drawing on experiences from their own lives, the children spin a grim but empowering story about a girl named Liyana who must save her younger twin brothers from kidnappers who plan to sell them. The children must decide how Liyana's and ultimately their own stories will end.

Is it any good?

This unique film is a powerful, inspiring, innovative, and beautiful way to reveal how some pretty resilient children are coping with hardship and ugliness they've experienced. Directors Aaron and Amanda Kopp use an engrossing tactic to keep the film from being relentlessly tragic: Five children growing up in a Swaziland (now known as eSwatini) orphanage work together to write a fairy tale, with their teacher advising the camera crew that the kids will naturally put their own experiences into the story. Viewers may likely feel a pit in their stomach as these enthusiastic, imaginative children don't bat an eye at incorporating elements of child abuse, philandering alcoholic fathers, the spread of HIV, and armed men who steal children from their beds in the middle of the night.

The five children are wholly engaging and appealing: They're precocious, animated, and sweet -- it's impossible not to fall in love. They smile with pride as they tell the story they've imagined, all accompanied by sublime illustrations. And while their tale is captivating, it's also more than that: It's inspirational to the young authors themselves. The most magnificent moment in the film is when the children acknowledge that there's no reason to hope that life will get better ... and yet, in those beaming faces, you know hope is alive.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the difficulties and dangers that Liyana faces. The storyteller explains that the children's own experiences will be reflected in the story. Which elements do you think came from their real lives? How is life in Swaziland different than life in the United States?

  • How does Liyana act with perseverance and courage? How do the children represent these traits? Why are these important character strengths?

  • The storyteller guides the children through the process of creative writing. Did you pick up anything that would help you write and create characters? Would you want to be a professional storyteller?

  • The children have lived through trauma, which unfortunately isn't unusual where they live. The film states that 1 out of 6 people in Swaziland are children who've been orphaned in similar situations. Do you think it's easier to deal with a difficult situation if many others have had the same experience?

  • The kids who wrote Liyana's story seem to find inspiration in the story they wrote. Why is Liyana a positive role model? Is she just a positive role model for girls, or do you think boys can also find her story empowering?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love inspiring stories

Character Strengths

Find more movies that help kids build character.

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

Streaming options powered by JustWatch

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate