Working solo this time, ‘The Secret of Kells’ co-director Nora Twomey takes on very different subject matter in her latest animated feature. ‘The Breadwinner’ is a tale of the horrors of being a woman living under Taliban rule, as well as an ode to the power of escape and redemption through storytelling. The latter theme doesn’t register quite as deeply, but the former is more than enough to carry this potent film.
Parvana (Saara Chaudry) is an 11-year-old girl living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in 2001. As a girl, she’s unable to even go outside unaccompanied by men. Her warm-hearted and one-legged father (Ali Badshah) helps push her into the world as his helper, until he’s arrested one day for no discernible reason. Suddenly, Parvana is left with her mother, sister and toddler brother. Only the pint-sized child can go outside unaccompanied, so they’re obviously in a pickle. Parvana decides to cut her hair and pose as a boy in order to find ways to support the family. It isn’t easy, but she soon finds a friend doing the exact same thing. Together, they dream of a world without this level of obscene oppression. At the same time, the film regularly pauses for Parvana to tell her brother a story about a boy attempting to save his village from an evil Elephant King, which feels like another movie entirely.
The Elephant King segments are beautifully animated to look like paper cut-outs dancing in stop-motion. It’s some of the boldest and most beautiful animation in the film, but the whole subplot feels like a distraction. While the concept of escaping through storytelling is powerful, the material is never truly worthy of the break from the more fascinating main story. Presumably, this story is supposed to make the film more appealing to children. That’s not a terrible idea. The thoughts and themes of ‘The Breadwinner’ would be worth sharing with many. However, it’s odd for a movie so harsh and truthful to suddenly spiral off into wild flights of fancy that feel like they belong in another project entirely, no matter how beautiful the animation.
Still, the central story is potent. It’s a frighteningly real tale of misogynistic and religious repression. Meticulously researched by novelist Deborah Ellis, the tale is painfully true and often difficult to watch. The voice cast is consistently impressive. The animation style finds a careful line between realism and exaggeration. The film cuts deep and hurts, while also offering signs of hope without belaboring the point or succumbing to sentimentality.
Even at 94 minutes, ‘The Breadwinner’ feels stretched to the breaking point and weighed down by a fantasy subplot. However, the film is further proof of just how beautifully varied and diverse animation can be as a medium, even if it’s unlikely we’ll see something like this again for years.