Warning, some major spoilers
The Breadwinner (2017) is an animated film produced by and directed by Angelina Jolie and Mimi Polk Gitlin. It focuses on a girl named Parvana who is living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and dresses as a boy to support her family after her father is jailed. While working, she meets Shauzia, an old classmate of hers, who is also dressing as a boy to earn money. Together the two explore their newly found freedom while still trying to survive.
Interwoven through the story is a tale, told in cut-paper puppet style animation, about a boy traveling to defeat the evil Elephant King who has stolen his people’s seeds. Parvana narrates the tale.
The film does an excellent job of depicting the real horrors a girl like Parvana must deal with everyday; constantly fearing for her life every time she leaves the house, whether it’s as a boy or girl, worrying about earning enough money to feed her family, worrying whether her father is dead or alive and still trying to have hope.
I have to give the crew major credit. It feels as though Parvana is based on a specific person and isn’t just an amalgam of a whole bunch of different girls, who was then adapted from book to screen. Most of the time.
The film is up there with Grave of the Fireflies with how it depicts the horrors of war. The movie isn’t as dark and has different themes and messages, but it delivers both of them very well. The Breadwinner is specifically about women surviving in an environment dominated by men, not just surviving in a war-torn world.
All of the most emotional scenes in the film focus on women’s struggles. In one scene, Parvana and her mother journey to visit her father in prison. But they get stopped by a Taliban officer as they were walking outside without an escort. The officer then proceeds to beat her mother. We don’t see directly, and many of her injuries are originally covered up by her niqab. But, I truly thought that she was going to die.
Luckily, she doesn’t. And everyone struggles to cope afterwards.
I also felt as though the scene where Shauzia and Parvana said goodbye had a lot of emotional impact. I thought it was one of the most powerful scenes in the film. The two part ways promising to meet each other again in 20 years, at the beach. The way the two make this promise, knowing that it likely won’t happen is absolutely heartbreaking. Their friendship was one of the best parts of the movie.
The relationship is well executed. It’s easy to tell the two care a lot for each other, even when they fight or argue. It’s very genuine and I can really appreciate that. Out of all the relationships in the film, this one feels the most real.
While the relationships with her family are also very genuine, they follow the typical dynamic: doesn’t always listen to her mother, teases her older sister, is annoyed by her baby brother and is a daddy’s girl. It’s not bad and it feels natural, but there’s more of a genuine connection between these two girls.
One of my issues with the film though, is how society is the villain. While there is the constant sense of danger throughout the film, I think that having a single person (or two) as a representation of that threat would have been a good choice. There is no singular constant villain, nobody suspects Parvana of disguising herself or who follows her. Instead, each man represents a different threat.
This a more personal preference of mine. Villains define the work of media they’re in. The less defined the villain or antagonist, the more the work suffers. When the antagonist isn’t a person but more of a concept or group, it’s harder for me to enjoy. I understand why the film went in this direction, as no one person is responsible for the society’s ills, having someone represent all (or most) of the issues would have made the struggle more personal. But that’s my opinion.
My other issue with the film is how it deals with some of Parvana’s character traits. One of her defining traits is love of stories. However, at the beginning of the film she dismisses stories as being “for children;” but the minute her father is arrested, she begins telling stories without any internal struggle or debate. It’s a huge development, but we don’t get to see it played out.
The other issue is her literacy; in the book “The Breadwinner,” which provides the basis for the film, Parvana makes money reading and writing for illiterate people. While I haven’t read the book yet, it seems to be a very important part of her character. In the film, this ability gets ignored until the end and it seems odd that it isn’t bought up more. We never see her putting these skills to use otherwise, even when she’s dressed as a boy and can’t be punished.
This part feels disconnected from the rest of the story, and it seems relevant to discuss how her knowledge gives her even more freedom as a boy and gives her more of a chance to explore it, but the movie barely acknowledges it.
Admittedly, Parvana’s father is arrested for being a teacher. A lot of this could be related to a fear of getting arrested herself but the movie could have also acknowledged this angle.
For me, the biggest draw to the movie was its animation. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I adore Cartoon Saloon’s work. I love their character design, their background design, their attention to detail and how their characters move. The movie has their distinctive flair.
The characters drawn rather flat, but there are deep, detailed geometric backgrounds, with great care taken to express the culture portrayed. Everything flows very nicely.
Cartoon Saloon might not have been my first choice to direct a movie like this. They’ve produced two major motion features both of which were significantly more light-hearted than The Breadwinner, and focused on Irish mythology and culture. The movies were praised by critics but weren’t necessarily box office successes. But I do think it was the right choice, considering the end product.
Choosing animation as the medium to tell this story was risky enough. But I also think that animation works as an excellent medium for this story, as live action may be too realistic and graphic. Unlike some of the other films I’ve watched, The Breadwinner doesn’t try to appeal to children even though it’s in the perfect position to do so.
It doesn’t have any pandering humor, and nor does it try too hard to stand out as an adult film. It could have taken a few more risks given its PG-13 rating, however.
It’s a wonderful movie and I think everyone should try to see it. I do wish that the directors were more willing to take risks with the characters and plot, but the movie ultimately deserves its Oscar nomination. I believe its success could lead to more serious, non-comedy, adult centered animated features.
I give the movie an 8/10.
And that’s the scoop!
(My rating system can now be found on my about page!)
Film Rating: PG-13
Length: 1 hr. 33 minutes
Availability: Netflix, GooglePlay, YouTube and select cinemas.