Parvana is an 11-year-old girl who lives in Kabul, Afghanistan, with her parents, an older sister and a baby brother. Under the rule of the Taliban, Parvana can’t appear in public unless she is accompanied by a male relative. She can’t work outside the home. When her father is imprisoned for unspecified offenses against Islam, she can’t even buy food in the market because there is no adult male to transact the business on her behalf. That’s when Parvana decides to cut her hair and assume the identity of a fictional nephew so her family can survive this crisis.
Based on the best-selling children’s book by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner is the latest animated film from the creative team that brought us The Secret of Kells (2009). Ellis, who lives and works in Canada, interviewed women and girls in refugee camps throughout Pakistan to gain insight into their experiences living under Taliban rule. This authenticity translates to the big screen. The Breadwinner serves as an adventure tale and as a look inside a culture that Westerners rarely see up close. The world of the film is presented matter-of-factly and without judgment. The lack of preaching or editorializing makes the film all the more authentic.
As with so many live-action foreign films, the themes running through The Breadwinner are universal. Parvana’s actions are motivated by one thing: love of family. She risks her life masquerading as a boy in a culture that bans women from public life, but she doesn’t take on this alternate identity for personal gain or individual freedom. She undertakes this “quest” out of loyalty to her family, so they may eke out a living while her father is in prison. Her ultimate goal is to earn enough money to bribe a prison official to free her father, so they can all be reunited.
On a technical level, The Breadwinner offers a hand-crafted look that’s distinctive in this age of computer-generated animation. The backgrounds appear to be painted with hand-drawn characters superimposed on the paintings. Children may find such low-tech animation to be old-fashioned or quaint, but it gives The Breadwinner the kind of personality that is so often lacking in the Pixar and Disney animated blockbusters. (When I reviewed My Life as a Zucchini earlier this year, I ranted about the misguided modern desire for animation to look “realistic” and “life-like”, so I won’t repeat that diatribe here.)
Unlike many animated films that are based on catchy songs or characters undertaking missions on a lark, The Breadwinner is rooted in deeper questions of personal identity and self-worth. The film will both entertain and educate its younger audience members. Expect girls to be filled with questions about the restrictions under which Parvana and her female relatives are forced to live. In our world that is dominated by sexual harassment scandals and misogynistic work environments, it’s an important discussion to have.
The Breadwinner opens at Landmark Theatre locations across the country on Friday, December 1, 2017.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.