Film Review: Courage and Family Matter in Beautifully Animated The Breadwinner

Every year, after the Oscar nominations are announced, the dust settles and a few titles rise to the top as head-scratchers. How the heck did that get nominated for an Academy Award? There’s one such movie in this year’s Best Animated Feature category, although mercifully it is not The Breadwinner. (I’ll give you three guesses which it is…it starts with a B and ends in …oss Baby.)

Image courtesy of Gene Siskel Film Center

From the studio that created The Secret of the Kells and Song of the Sea, both masterpieces in their own right and both also nominated for Oscars, The Breadwinner is a universally stirring drama about a young girl in Kabul, Afghanistan in the shadow of September 11. As war looms, her father is unjustly imprisoned and she’s forced to get creative about how to support her mother, older sister and toddler brother under an oppressive regime.

Until his arrest, Parvana joins her father in the town market, selling what few wares they have in order to buy food and stay afloat amid the uncertainty of their town and the new way of life, one that is particularly harsh against unaccompanied women and girls. After her mother is beaten for venturing out alone to find her husband, Parvana tries to shop at the market on her own; she’s quickly run off for no other reason than her gender.

So Parvana, who soothes her younger brother’s tantrums with the imaginative, captivating stories she spins every evening, finds herself at the center of her own unbelievable tale: she cuts her hair and adopts a new name in order to pass for a boy. In this way, she can take odd jobs like offering to read or write for her neighbors, and earn enough to keep her family fed. What’s more, as a boy she can come and go as she pleases, shopping at the market and even making her way to the prison where she believes her father is held.

But she’s no match for the rough and ruthless Taliban, and circumstances only get worse for her family; in order to survive, her mother writes a distant cousin and proposes an arranged marriage for the elder daughter, one that will take the whole family away from the incoming fighting. Through it all, Parvana shares more and more of the story she’s dreamed up for her little brother, and we learn it’s not a fable at all. Parvana once had an older brother, too, and her story sees him become the hero he’ll never grew up to be.

Based on a children’s novel by Deborah Ellis, the film version was adapted by Anita Doron and directed by Nora Twomey (who also directed The Secret of the Kells). This female trio has shepherded into the world a beautifully rendered animated tale worthy of its placement among this year’s Oscar nominated films. Parvana’s story is depicted in a crisp, hand-drawn style, a desert landscape imbued with earth tones. Conversely, the story of Sulayman facing down an evil force that wreaks havoc on the fictitious townspeople is played out with colorful two-dimensional puppets. It’s a stark contrast to Parvana’s monochromatic everyday, but it never feels forced.

Like Song of the Sea and The Secret of the Kells before it, The Breadwinner champions courage in the face of danger and doing what’s right even when it’s hard. The bonds of family are paramount, and both Parvana’s adventure and the one of her whimsical story impart important lessons about facing up to the bad guys and charging ahead in the face of adversity. Though it’s not without its conflict, all the more timely given the relatively contemporary Middle Eastern setting, it’s nevertheless a wonderfully heartwarming story that Western audiences would be wise to give their attention.

The Breadwinner screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center through February 1.

Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone