Director: Nora Twomey
Starring: Saara Chaudry, Soma Bhatia, Laara Sadiq, Ali Badshah
Writers: Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis
A review by Michael Walls-Kelly
Big ideas told through small, intimate stories isn’t something new to animated films. It isn’t new to narratives in general, but The Breadwinner manages to make it seem new. We focus on the goals of one family, of one little girl, dealing with the oppressive horrors of the world through love, determination and storytelling.
The girl, Parvana (Saara Chaudry) has to navigate a Taliban-controlled Kabul. Where men will beat her if she’s seen outside her house without a male escort, where fighter jets ominously scream overhead at random intervals. She has to do it, to feed her family and find her father. Suddenly our worries about the world and our toxic society are narrowed down to worrying whether Parvana will be able to buy rice undetected.
That’s one of the many reasons The Breadwinner is the best-animated film I’ve seen this year. The movie comes from the animation studio Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) and is directed by Nora Twomey, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Deborah Ellis.
Parvana lives with her father, mother, older sister and younger brother. When her father is forcefully taken to prison Parvana cuts her hair to pass as a boy to move more freely outside. She’s selling goods, buying food, and trying to find more information about where her father was taken. She eventually meetsShauzia (Soma Bhatia), a girl she went to school with. The two friends work together to make enough money for Parvana to bribe someone into releasing her father.
History and storytelling are such an important part of this film and these characters. The Breadwinner reinforces that in smart ways. Parvana’s father lost his leg in a previous war, a war that still reverberates and will ultimately repeat. Shauzia and Parvana casually walk through a graveyard of bombed-out tanks and trucks. These details are painted throughout the story in a subtle enough way to keep the focus on Parvana while still illustrating the history that informs her personal conflict.
The crisp animation style of The Breadwinner is extremely inviting, occasionally punctuating painted backgrounds with splashes of vivid colour. When Parvana is telling her brother a tale, the storyworld is rendered in paper cut-outs. A gorgeous looking distinction from the real world of the film. This story seems like an odd distraction. Only really included to give the movie some fantasy visuals, until the finale reveals the tale as a way for Parvana to deal with her trauma. The storyworld segments allow for one of my favourite scenes. When Parvana is telling Shauzia the story, and she keeps adding details, the two girls bonding over collaborative storytelling.
The Breadwinner is an unapologetically female movie. Save for a few small characters, Parvana’s father, and a man she befriends, all of the heroes of the story are women. Parvana, her mother, her sister and Shauzia are all strong characters with compelling arcs. More importantly, they’re distinct characters. Often films will have strict archetypes for its female characters: The Mother, The Sister, The Friend. Fattema (Laara Sadiq) is a grieving wife and mother, but she isn’t only that, which is a distinction a lot of male-driven stories ignore.
The end of the film is a complicated one. It’s a mix of happy and sad, but the feeling that pierces through it all is hope. This family, and Parvana, in particular, are so strong and determined in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. There’s no way you won’t be left with a smile. Maybe even teary eyes, as you watch those brush-stroke clouds move across the bright, haloed moon.
Watch This Movie! While the film may be too deliberately-paced to hold the attention of the youngest viewers, there’s lots to love in The Breadwinner for other children and adults. It’s a beautiful tale that’s told well and will give you a lot more to chew on when the credits roll than something like The Emoji Movie.