By Jeremy Carr.
The power and purpose of storytelling is essential to The Breadwinner, the newly released animated adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ 2000 young-adult novel of the same name, directed by Nora Twomey and scripted by Anita Doron. For Kabul father Nurullah (voiced by Ali Badshah), stories are a way to instill in his 11-year-old daughter, Parvana (Saara Chaudry), the tumultuous history of their native Afghanistan, its multifaceted, nomadic record of philosophy, science, and one ravaging war after another. Perched in his customary market square slot, this crippled former teacher also recalls the era of his youth, when he and classmates relished in a naïve peace, when “all the empires forgot about us…for a while, at least.” His wistful recollections illustrate what so many children face as they are unwittingly, bafflingly, caught in the midst of political and religious strife, and his reflective primer exposes the region’s predilection for constant change, a constancy that will soon sweep up the innocence of his own offspring.
After chiding a hot-tempered neophyte Taliban fighter, the father’s defiance gets him arrested that evening (as it happens in this insular city of prior associations and familial connections, the young man is a former student of Nurullah’s). Under a shroud of uncertainty and fear, Parvana steps into her eponymous role, attempting to satiate the needs of her toddler brother, older sister, and weary, sickly mother. Failing to provide for her family by conventional means – conventionally male means, for shopkeepers won’t sell to a girl – Parvana is inspired by another pre-teen, Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), who cuts her hair and poses as a boy. Following the initial joy of simply getting away with the ruse, she gradually attains a confidence and comfort under the pretense. Despite appearing as a dim-witted child who is clearly out of his/her element in a man’s world, Parvana secures the requisite resources by reading and writing for others, selling family wares, and working a variety of odd jobs.
The Breadwinner has a rather bleak view of contemporary Kabul, understandably so, of course, and when war inevitably breaks out, the conflict adds a sense of unexpected urgency to Parvana’s plight. But what exactly is that plight? Ironically, given the prominence of storytelling in its fictional narrative, the film itself falters with a fairly basic and undeveloped scenario. A distant relative offers to arrange the marriage of Parvana’s sister, which would mean safety and security but also abandoning Nurullah in prison, yet not much is made of that brief subplot solution. Similarly, while the survival subversion works well enough as far as it hinges on the tension of Parvana possibly getting discovered, when the larger goal centers on her tracking down Nurullah (to what aim?), the film’s focus mirrors Parvana’s priorities: capricious and imprecise.
Given these sequential shortcomings, The Breadwinner is comparatively more successful in the broad strokes, with a wider, albeit superficial, portrait of social resignation and oppression. In particular, Ellis, Doron, and Twomey cultivate a disturbingly authentic picture of demeaning misogyny. Parvana is victim to unrelenting cruelty at the hands of nearly every man she meets, save for an illiterate widower who provides a cautious glimpse of male decency. Surprisingly, however, this sexist deportment produces one of the film’s most amusing (and sadly illuminating) moments, when an older man stops by Parvana’s vendor space and she recommends a dress for his accompanying daughter. It turns out the girl is actually his wife.
Revisiting the subject of storytelling, and diverting from the principal storyline, The Breadwinner integrates an intermittent fable about the fantastical exploits of the Elephant King. This fairy-tale account, periodically recited by those within the film’s primary narrative, provides a parallel adventure and emphasizes the value of storytelling as an imaginative escape from bitter reality (except that it tragically reveals what happened to Parvana’s absent older brother). These episodic interludes are the most visually impressive portions of the film. Using a layered, paper sheet, stop-motion animation, the imagery is vibrantly colorful, textured, and considerably more distinctive than the rest of the picture.
A Canadian-Irish-Luxembourgian production, realized through Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon (and distributed by GKids), The Breadwinner is the first solo feature from Twomey, who had co-directed The Secret of Kells in 2009. For many, the executive producer credit to Angelina Jolie will be the prominent name associated with the release. More substantively, though, the film will likely be regarded in the vein of Persepolis (2007), Waltz with Bashir (2008), and The Wind Rises (2013), animated features that tackle austere international anxieties in thought-provoking detail. From the violence enacted in the film (most of which is kept off-screen), to references of land mines and executions, to the surreal sight of a tank graveyard, The Breadwinner is certainly a despairing vision. Yet there is a softness to the movie’s style, a clean flatness, that sits uneasily with the severity of its subject matter. The Elephant King segments notwithstanding, art directors Reza Riahi and Ciaran Duffy create characters with standard, buoyant features, which seem to contrast with the film’s grim thematic content. Granted, it’s an illustration conducive to the purity of a childlike view of atrocity, and in its own way, The Wind Rises had an equally effusive aesthetic. But in the Miyazaki film, there is a lesser emphasis on foreground viciousness, so the animation isn’t quite so discordant. As a result of this visual imbalance, along with the temperate plotline, The Breadwinner gets frightfully close to the edge of darkness, perhaps as far as it could in PG-13 territory, yet it ultimately wavers. It’s powerful in a cursory sort of way, but it isn’t entirely satisfying as a child-friendly cultural statement or as a hard-hitting adult drama.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.