“The Breadwinner”, a little animation feature film which was recently nominated for Best Animated Feature Oscar, distinguishes itself with its simple but appealing storytelling coupled with an impressive animation style. While its story often feels bleak and desperate for good reasons, the film holds our attention through its sensitive depiction of its young heroine’s struggle in her harsh world, and it is surely one of more notable animation films during 2017.
Its story is mainly about Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), a young girl living in Kabul, Afghanistan around the early 2000s. As many of you know, the country was under the Taliban regime during that dark, gloomy period, and the early part of the film shows us how things have been hard and difficult for Parvana’s family. Because women are strictly forbidden to go outside, her family has to depend only on her father Nurullah (voiced by Ali Badshah), but he cannot work due to his old war injury, and all he can do at a local marketplace is trying to sell a few precious things left to his family or provide a reading/writing service to illiterate people.
As a former teacher, Nurullah knows a lot about many things including the history of Afghanistan. While spending his time along with Parvana at the marketplace, he tells her a story which is the summary of numerous turmoils their country went through for many centuries, and we are served with a vibrant sequence full of colors, patterns, and figures, which makes a striking contrast with the drab atmosphere surrounding Parvana and other characters living in Kabul.
And then something unfortunate happens. When a young Taliban solider who is also Nurullah’s former student spots Parvana, he immediately bullies Nurullah and Parvana, and he later has Nurullah arrested and then taken to a prison outside the city. Parvana’s mother Fattema (voiced by Laara Sadiq) tries to get her husband back, but she only finds herself cruelly beaten by a Taliban solider during her attempt, and that accordingly causes more sorrow and desperation in her household.
Parvana sees that she is the only one who can possibly support her mother and siblings, but she is soon reminded again of how dangerous and difficult it is for her to go outside alone. Even when she manages to avoid Taliban soldiers on streets, nobody in the marketplace wants to deal with her because they do not want to get into any trouble, and the situation accordingly becomes more daunting for her family as days go by.
In the end, Parvana comes to get an idea, and she immediately acts on it with her family’s consent. She cuts her hair, and she also wears the clothes left by his recently diseased older brother. Although she is naturally nervous when she goes outside with her disguise, she soon gets accustomed to her fake identity once she sees that marketplace people have no problem with dealing with her now, and she certainly feels proud and exalted when she succeeds in buying the food for her family without any trouble.
In addition, she comes across Shauzia (voiced by Soma Bhatia), her old friend who has also disguised herself as a boy for supporting her family. As a more experienced girl, Shauzia shows Parvana how to get more food and earn more money, and they also come to spend more time together as renewing their friendship. At one point, Shauzia shares her modest innocent hope with Parvana, and that is one of the most poignant moments in the film.
Meanwhile, Parvana keeps hoping to see her father again, but the circumstance remains gloomy as before. When she goes to the prison with some money to be used as the bribe, she is heartlessly rejected by a vicious guard. She is not daunted at all by this incident, but then she and Shauzia almost get themselves exposed and killed during one very precarious moment, and we also notice small but significant signs of another turmoil to come upon Kabul.
As coping with the constant danger around her everyday, Parvana often tells a story to herself and others around her, and the mood becomes brightened for a while whenever her story, which is about a young man going through a perilous journey for saving his village, is beautifully unfolded on the screen. Director Nora Twomey, who previous co-directed “The Secret of Kells” (2009) and also participated in the production of “Song of the Sea” (2014), and her crew did a good job of mixing a broad but distinctive cell animation style with colorful cultural details, and the score by Jeff and Mychael Danna is an effective accompaniment to that.
I must point out that “The Breadwinner” is not entirely without weak aspects. The screenplay by Anita Doron and Deborah Ellis, which is based on the acclaimed children’s book of the same name written by Ellis, is sincere and heartfelt on the whole, but it is notably predictable and contrived from time to time, and, above all, it tries a bit too hard to induce our emotional response during its expectedly climactic finale.
Nevertheless, this is still an admirable piece of work to be appreciated for its style and mood, and it is definitely more interesting than many forgettable blockbuster animation films such as “Despicable Me 3” (2017). Yes, it is imperfect indeed, but it has personality and heart at least, and that is more than enough for recommendation in my inconsequential opinion.