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Like so many great children’s movies, The Breadwinner, a rich and rewarding animated film set in Taliban-controlled Kabul, starts with the loss of a parent. Eleven-year-old Parvana (Saara Chaudry) spends her days at the marketplace with her father Narulla (Ali Badshah), where they sell their own goods—including a jewel-encrusted shirt Parvana dreams about wearing one day—and try to avoid the scrutiny of roaming Taliban soldiers. Narulla knows the rules, but when his daughter is bullied by a particularly cruel soldier, he can’t help but defend her, and quickly lands in prison.
These early scenes swiftly establish the terror of living under Taliban rule—where a wrong word can end a life and destroy a family—but the events that follow will be equally revelatory to Western audiences. Without an adult male in the house, a family living in an extreme patriarchy cannot function. Parvana’s family is poor but not destitute. The problem is that no one in the marketplace will do business with a little girl for fear of retribution from the Taliban, so Parvana chops off her jet-black hair, and poses as a boy to enter the exciting world of Kabul commerce.
The subject matter feels right on time for those following the discussions of female harassment in America, but Afghanistan is a patriarchy on steroids. When Parvana meets an old friend also posing as a boy, the two revel in their newfound freedom. “When you’re a boy, you can go anywhere you like,” she says, as they sneak into a factory to steal candy. The gap, however, between their fancy-freedom and the hard-earned wisdom of adults in the audience is large, and we know it’s only a matter of time before Parvana’s new liberation is snatched away.
Still, while the arc of The Breadwinner is broadly predictable, it is so richly-drawn—both literally and figuratively—and deeply-felt that it hardly matters. Based on the children’s novel by Deborah Ellis, the screenplay is a lesson in how to make a film for all ages without patronizing children or pandering to adults. It’s a sparse story, well-told, but it doesn’t shy away from metaphor. There is a shot late in the film—a simple shot, of a moon with clouds passing beneath it on a dark night—that is so rich with meaning it can hardly be untangled. Because of the groundwork laid, the viewer understands specifically what it means to the characters, and what it means more broadly to the film’s themes.
Much of this is accomplished with the film’s simple animation style. Eschewing the 3D animation so popular with Pixar and the other upper-level animation studios, The Breadwinner’s comparatively crude drawings are in line with its inclusive approach. The animators do wonders with the characters’ large eyes and expressive eyebrows. In some shots, a character’s inner life shifts dramatically, with an almost imperceptible change to their outer expression. There is little room for emotional catharsis in their hardened world, so even a half-smile can unleash rays of hope.
It’s a brilliant tactic, and it’s easy to see why Angelina Jolie joined on as executive producer. The star-turned-director has made several films about war-torn areas rarely reported on by the Western media—In the Land of Blood and Honey took place in Bosnia, while her more recent First They Killed My Father was set in Cambodia. Perhaps too viscerally upsetting for Western audiences, these films sank like a stone. But the animation in The Breadwinner serves as a bridge to empathy, a visual style to which children can relate, and one adults can use to give them just enough distance so that they don’t turn away.
The Breadwinner opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.