With everything going on in western news right now, it can be easy to overlook the problems facing the other side of the world. Unexpectedly, it’s an animated family film that serves as a reminder. Set in Taliban-occupied Afghanistan, THE BREADWINNER, directed by Nora Twomey, is the latest from the studio behind SONG OF THE SEA; which was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2015 Oscars, but did not win. It would be shocking if that happened again to this utterly divine story.
Loosely based on a novel by Deborah Ellis, the film follows Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), a young girl whose father is imprisoned by the Taliban. Since the law forbids women to go out unaccompanied, and there are no grown men left in the family to go out and earn money for food, Parvana takes it upon herself to go out, disguised as a boy, aiming not only to feed her mother and siblings, but also to find her father again.
The animation style, beautiful and simple, is almost sketch-like, yet full of beguiling colour and life. However, there is not only one style. An ongoing theme is that of storytelling, and whenever a character tells a story, it is realised through more puppet-like animation. These cutaways are charming, and provide excellent comic relief, helping to lighten the mood whenever things get too heavy. And yet, in the film’s faultlessly powerful final act, the script and direction find incredible, unexpected poignancy from these formerly-lighthearted stories.
The characters are all well realised, with many of them being downright inspirational. Parvana, as the central character, is a terrific role-model for young girls: brave and creative, loyal yet strong-willed. But her older sister isn’t merely someone for her to butt heads with, her mother isn’t merely a flat, doting symbol of safety, and the people she meets aren’t merely good or evil. Every character is three-dimensional and complex, bringing rich truth and believability to the film’s portrayal of its setting.
One worry audiences might have is that the film is more for adults, and will go over younger viewers’ heads. It certainly doesn’t shy away from or romanticise the harsher realities of the characters’ lives. In fact, it is astonishingly gritty and dark at times. However, children are tougher than they’re often given credit for, and a hell of a lot smarter. In a screening of the film, kids could be heard gasping aloud at key moments of tension. They were as invested as anybody. The film takes complicated, difficult subject matter, and without diluting it, simply adds enough laughs, thrills and cute character designs to reel in audiences under 10.
Those kids won’t necessarily realise it, but through this exciting, moving animation, they just empathised with real, serious situations happening in their world. Hopefully, this won’t be their last step towards an adulthood with compassion over ignorance.