The Breadwinner, a new animated feature directed by Nora Twomey, is more instructive than strictly entertaining. This is not a negative criticism given its heavy subject matter: the brutal treatment of women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Nor is this surprising given that the film comes with an online interactive study guide, which features sections on the history of Afghanistan and the animation process. Although predominately created by Westerners, the team behind The Breadwinner reportedly took great care in representing Afghan culture and life under Taliban control as authentically as possible. Intended to highlight serious issues (assumingly to Western audiences) like misogyny, radicalism and the effects of war, The Breadwinner is a beautifully-constructed yet grueling story of female bravery that feels both timeless and timely.
The film, which recently earned a Golden Globe nomination and an award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is set in 2001 and revolves around an 11-year-old girl named Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) who lives in Kabul. Parvana helps her crippled father (Ali Badshah) pawn goods and services on the street. When he is unjustly arrested one evening, the family cannot provide for itself since, under Taliban rule, women are restricted from leaving the house unless accompanied by a male relative. Parvana decides to disguise herself as a boy to procure provisions and find her father in prison. Her ventures into the grim outside world are interrupted, visually and narratively, by a fantastical story she tells her family — mother (Laara Sadiq), older sister (Shaista Latif) and baby brother — her confidante Shauzia (Soma Bhatia), and, eventually, herself.
The Breadwinner packs several emotionally compelling scenes into its brisk 94-minute running time and is a welcomed exploration of genuinely complex female relationships. When Parvana decides to cut her hair short, her older sister, with whom she frequently quarrels, watches her get up and take the scissors into the other room. Wordlessly, she joins Parvana and gently helps her. Sisterhood, as represented by the film, is hardly one-note, and instead is an appreciated fusion of opposition and solidarity. The Breadwinner also focuses on Parvana’s relationship with her best friend Shauzia, another young girl disguised as a boy. Their bond — created out of a mixture of shared history, tragedy, humor, bravery and innocence — feels authentic right through to their moving promise to meet again at the seaside in 20 years.
Parvana’s story-within-a-story, which takes up a large portion of The Breadwinner, is well-paced, becoming more frequent as the film reaches its climax. Twomey and her team at the Irish production company Cartoon Saloon rightly used two different animation styles throughout. The world of Parvana and her family is rendered through realistic animation that is dominated by muted colors. Parvana’s escapist tale of a young boy hoping to save his village by finding and fighting the evil Elephant King is illustrated by a theatrical paper cut-out aesthetic, bold in color and almost whimsical in nature (there are green skeletons at one point). While the dialogue in these portions of the film can feel redundant at times (Parvana, as the narrator, will say something and then a character within her story will repeat it), having these two distinct visual modes helps the film effectively realize one of its central themes: storytelling as both an art and a mode of survival. Over the course of the film, stories — whether told by Parvana’s father at the beginning or later by Parvana herself — are presented as educational, inspiring, entertaining, healing and strategic. They are also shown to be collaborative and malleable, as when Shauzia tries to interject and change Parvana’s narrative to make it lighter. Stories have the power, The Breadwinner asserts, to help humanity persevere, a lesson that is applicable to any time or place.
The film falters slightly in its handling of Parvana’s cross-dressing. Although clearly not intended to be its explicit focus, the act of cross-dressing is mainly treated as a simple plot device. There are a few hints at the complex ways that Parvana’s ability to transgress a restricted space is changing her perception of herself and the world around her. At one point, clad in her late-brother’s clothes, she witnesses Taliban soldiers surround a mother and daughter. Later, she complains to Shauzia that she did not do anything. As such an intriguing and potentially rich moment, it is disappointing that The Breadwinner is not interested in probing these themes further. At least twice, Parvana states something like “now that I’m a boy,” which, although illustrative of her childish naiveté, ultimately undercuts the complexity of what it means for the film to have her enter such a violently patriarchal public space in a temporary way.
That said, The Breadwinner feels necessary. The film is based on the bestselling children’s novel of the same name by Canadian writer Deborah Ellis. Published in 2000, the book is a result of stories that Ellis heard while visiting an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan. Similarly, the film version is less a coming-of-age story than a snapshot of a hostile and repressive regime, fitting with executive producer Angelina Jolie’s global humanitarian efforts. It is only a coming-of-age story insofar that Parvana learns to recognize the power of storytelling. More overtly, The Breadwinner is a depiction of female vulnerability and courage in many different forms. Certain moments in the film — when the two young girls sit on a deserted tank or when Parvana’s mother, dressed in a burqa, is beaten beside an iron fence — lingered in my mind after the credits rolled. These images highlight not only the physical violence, confinement and helplessness, but also the emotional suffering endured by women in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The Breadwinner, ending on a note of fragile hope, feels like a tale for today.