Girl survives Taliban by posing as a boy in heartfelt ‘Breadwinner’

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In disguise as a male, 11-year-old Parvana develops new confidence in “The Breadwinner.” | GKIDS

It’s a hard world for little things, and a young girl under Taliban rule in Afghanistan is a very little thing indeed.

But Parvana, the 11-year-old heroine of “The Breadwinner,” is not one to submit to despair, or to the iron fists of violent men drunk on power. Her brave defiance makes for an empowering story about children that is accessible to children without shying from the terrors of the war that shapes it.

The humanitarian and artistic pedigree behind “The Breadwinner” is considerable: It is executive produced by Angelina Jolie, based on the children’s book written by feminist and peace activist Deborah Ellis, and directed by Nora Twomey, the co-director of 2009’s sparkling “The Secret of Kells.” Still, “The Breadwinner” falls shy of their best work, the story never quite living up to its intentions.

Life is already plenty hard for Parvana’s family living under the Taliban in 2001. The girl and her disabled father try to sell the last of their nice things in the public market to feed her mother, older sister and baby brother. But things get infinitely harder when her father, an educated teacher who can’t resist speaking up and talking back, finds himself wrongly arrested and imprisoned.

With the father in prison, the family is hobbled. Women are not permitted in public unaccompanied by a man, and with their patriarch gone, Parvana’s family is trapped, unable even to buy rice. Desperate, Parvana cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy. She quickly learns to navigate the world, no longer as a cowering and submissive girl under constant threat of terror, but with the confidence of a boy with nothing to fear.

The animation is expressive, lush and detailed as tapestry. Harsh landscapes shimmer with beauty, even when littered with the bones of landmines and abandoned tanks. This is a land haunted with history, and Parvana’s wide green eyes soak up its many splendors and traumas as she races to free her father from prison.

Like so many stories, “The Breadwinner” stumbles when it turns its eye inward and away from the driving storyline. To entertain her baby brother, and ultimately to make emotional sense of the war-torn world around her, Parvana begins telling a story about a boy who goes on a quest to vanquish a fearsome elephant king.

This parallel parable is stunningly animated, assuming an intricate storybook quality that recalls “The Secret of Kells.” But where this side story excels visually it stumbles narratively, lacking the impact or urgency of Parvana’s struggle and robbing energy from her narrative climax.

For all its heart and beauty, “The Breadwinner” sputters a bit to a close. Its themes are undeniable; one walks away feeling angry and empowered. But with the story’s soft focus, one soon forgets why.

Barbara VanDenburgh, USA TODAY Network


GKIDS presents a film directed by Nora Twomey and written by Anita Doron, based on the novel by Deborah Ellis. Rated PG-13 (for thematic material including some violent images). Running time: 93 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC River East 21.

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