Shining a ray of hope into one of the darker corners of recent history, the animated drama “The Breadwinner” is a powerful and heartwarming story of a girl persevering in a place where the mere act of being a girl could get one killed.
Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) is an 11-year-old girl living in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the time when her country was controlled by the Taliban. She spends her day sitting in the market with her father, Nurullah (voiced by Ali Badshah), trying to sell what little they have so they can buy food for the family. Usually, they are harassed by zealous Taliban acolytes who distrust Nurullah because he’s a teacher who doesn’t keep his daughter locked up at home.
When Nurullah, who lost his leg in the last Afghan war, shows defiance against one punk Taliban teen, the repercussions are swift and harsh. That night, the punk comes to the family’s house, with armed police, who take Nurullah away to a harsh prison. When Parvana and her mother, Fattema (voiced by Laara Sadiq), attempt to walk to the prison, they’re stopped by other men, one of whom beats Fattema severely.
With no man at home, and Fattema and Parvana’s older sister Soraya (voiced by Shaista Latif) unable to leave the house, the family quickly runs out of food. Parvana then makes a drastic decision: She cuts off her hair, wears her dead brother’s clothes and goes outside as a boy to earn money for the family.
Parvana soon learns that the world opens to boys in ways closed to girls. She makes friends with Shauzia (voiced by Soma Bhatia), a teen girl who’s been dressing as a boy for a while, and from her learns the tricks of living in the shadows. Parvana also takes up her father’s place in the market, offering assistance writing and reading for illiterate customers — which is how she befriends Razaq (Kawa Ada), an older gentleman who’s secretly sympathetic to her plight.
Director Nora Twomey and screenwriter Anita Doron (adapting Deborah Ellis’ young-adult best-seller) intercut Parvana’s desperate story with a fable — one handed down to Parvana by her father. The story, of a happy boy who must confront a greedy elephant king to retrieve his village’s precious seeds, becomes a source of courage for Parvana as she quietly fights for her family’s future.
Twomey (who co-founded the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, co-directed “The Secret of Kells” and was head of story on “Song of the Sea”) uses evocative cutout-style animation to illustrate the fable, a contrast to the fluid line drawings of Parvana and her real-life plight. The creative juxtaposition of styles, as the fable illuminates Parvana’s fears and hopes, adds a level of profound beauty to the film’s harrowing story.
Every year, the Academy Award nominations for animated feature include one or two lesser-known films, which are then pitted against the Hollywood studio behemoths like Disney and DreamWorks. “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea” were two such dark-horse nominees, and “The Breadwinner” is being touted as another. With its poignant story, powerful characters and graceful animation, it deserves to be noticed far and wide.
* * * 1/2
An Afghan girl must disguise herself as a boy to evade the Taliban in this beautiful and powerful animated drama.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 1.
Rated • PG-13 for thematic material including some violent images.
Running time • 94 minutes.