FILM REVIEW – THE BREADWINNER. With the voices of Saara Chaudry, Laara Sadiq, Soma Bhatia, Shaista Latif, Ali Badshah. Written by Anita Doron. Directed by Nora Twomey. Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some violent images. 94 minutes.
As the old saying goes, if you only see one children’s cartoon about Taliban-occupied Kabul this holiday season… Okay, so that’s probably not a real saying, as there’s certainly not another film out there quite like THE BREADWINNER, director Nora Twomey’s rousing – and occasionally grueling – animated adaptation of the bestselling book by Deborah Ellis. Set in Afghanistan circa 2001, it’s a tough-minded child’s adventure that might be too much for some children. (This is the part of the review where critics typically guesstimate an age the film is appropriate for. I think you know your kids well enough to be able to tell if it’s suitable for them without me assigning an arbitrary number.)
Eleven-year-old Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) helps her father in the tattered Kabul marketplace, where he reads and writes letters for the largely illiterate population. Until one day the old man earns the ire of a former student turned gun-toting street-creep and ends up busted for keeping books around the house. He’s dragged off to the local prison under mysterious charges for an unspecified length of time, which leaves Parvana to fend for the family. This is a task easier said than done, since under Taliban rules women aren’t allowed outside without male accompaniment, and the man of the house is not yet two years old.
Cutting her hair and donning a dead older brother’s clothes, Parvana makes up a comically phony boy’s name and takes to the streets with a newfound freedom. She soon happens upon a classmate named Shauzia who’s working a similar scam, and “The Breadwinner” begins a dance between exhilarating escapades and unthinkable brutality, which though largely confined to offscreen spaces nonetheless lurks over the movie like a dark cloud. Much like “The Florida Project,” this film understands that children are always going to be children and cannot resist the urge to play, even under circumstances that terrify us adults in the audience.
There’s a great camaraderie between these two characters, pulling a fast one on their ogre-like oppressors and climbing on tanks for kicks. The evocative animation sticks to bold, simple line drawings, my favorite design belonging to a massive hulk of an adult figure who becomes an unlikely ally to Parvana after she reads him some bad news. I was captivated by how much director Twomey is able to convey by the fashion in which he slices fruit – a pause in his process bringing one of the film’s most unexpected emotional payoffs.
What doesn’t work so well are the movie’s occasional sidelines into Afghan folklore, with Parvana spinning tall tales and legends about an Elephant King in a heightened cut-out animated style that’s visually pleasing yet superfluous to the proceedings. The final reel, taking place on the eve of the American invasion, is so unbearably tense that the meandering metaphors become something of a nuisance. The reality of Parvana’s story is nerve-racking enough without all these fanciful interruptions.
Still, “The Breadwinner” is an exceptionally strong film, one that stands alongside executive producer Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” as 2017 movies that make visceral for us the day-to-day realities of life during wartime, through the eyes of children who sadly don’t know of anything else.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper, and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.