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Breadwinner, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/28/17 13:06:50

"A beautifully animated film of an ugly situation."
5 stars (Awesome)

"The Breadwinner" is a pretty terrific film that may not get the attention that it might have even a year ago because of certain changes to Academy Award voting rules expected to favor big-studio blockbusters over more adventurous, individual films from around the globe. That's a crying shame, because nominating movies like this and getting them onto people's radar is where the Oscars are most useful - this one, for instance, is not what most expect from an animated film, but it uses the medium for clear, powerful storytelling that leaves a strong impression.

In Kabul, under the rule of the Taliban, one-time teacher Nurullah (voice of Ali Badshah) is reduced to selling his family's prized possessions on the street and taking money to read and write for those who can't, with 11-year-old daughter Parvana (voice of Saara Chaudry) assisting because he is disabled. He passes the time telling her stories, at least until he gets on the bad side of a young man happy to use the regime to settle scores and is carted off to jail. The is devastating to the family, because his only living son is a toddler and women and girls like daughters Parvana and her older sister Soraya (voice of Shalasta Latif) are not allowed out unescorted. When his wife Fattema (voice of Laara Sadiq) tries to make her way to the jail to plead his case, she is beaten badly. With food and water running out, Parvana cuts her hair, puts on the clothing of her dead brother, and hopes that this deception will allow her to work and buy what the family needs.

It's a fairly sharp turn for studio Cartoon Saloon, whose previous films were grounded in the folklore and history of their native Ireland, to do a film set in modern Afghanistan, but they keep their signature style of simple, sometimes almost geometric character designs and still make them remarkably expressive - the silent acting of Soroya when she knows that she's more or less been sold into marriage to guarantee the family's safety is the most notable. There's a particular sharpness to the characters' features that not only marks them as Middle Eastern but signals their determination, and a fine attention to body language even when the women are dressed in something deliberately shapeless and unrevealing. Little details help, like the way one corner of Parvana's head covering tends to fly away and get tucked back in, signalling how she has to remain nondescript even if it isn't in her nature.

It's a familiar but still striking style, but one that could feel dreary, especially against a setting that is either desert or a crumbling, grey city. But director Nora Twomey and her animators also shift to a bolder, more three-dimensional style when the characters are telling stories, shaking it up a bit. Those sequences have artifice of its own to show that they do not truly represent a better world that one can escape into, but they're striking, combining a child's imagination with impressive detail and strong Middle-Eastern influences. These scenes dazzle, demanding a look on the biggest screen available.

There are, admittedly, times when the story Parvana tells to her younger brother in bits and pieces, with its quest and elephant monster and colorful scenes of high adventure, may engage the audience more than the true-to-life present-day material, and not just because of the fanciful material. Parvana herself is a commanding lead character - in large part because Saara Chaudry's vocal performance is terrific, pugnacious as she discovers the power of people thinking she's a boy but also catching the adolescent desire for her family to just stop bugging her for a minute - but she's a kid and thus seldom really in control of her situation the way she is when telling the story, and that's very noticeable toward the end of the story. That climax is still thrilling, and although it's a somewhat mixed blessing that the audience is frequently only seeing the tip of the iceberg where everyone but Parvana is concerned: There are stories in every corner, and the audience may wish they got a little bit of time - and though sequels are unlikely, it's worth noting that the third of the four books author Deborah Ellis has written in the "Breadwinner" series focuses on one of the more interesting figures in this movie, Shauzia (voiced by Soma Chhaya), another girl disguised as a boy with a rather different backstory.

The story itself is often harsh, tough to stomach - I suspect many western kids watching it, dropped into the middle of Taliban-occupied Kabul will be rightly furious or frightened, add they should be, although the storytelling is nuanced enough to let them get to know the characters. It's tragic at points and can't make guarantees for its characters' futures, but there's just enough hope there to make it a tale of resourcefulness and determination rather than misery.

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