Movie Review: The Breadwinner
The Breadwinner is a beautiful, emotional tale. It is also unsatisfying. This is a feature, not a bug.
It’s Oscar season! A bunch of films are being shipped out in limited release these last couple weeks of December, just to qualify for Oscar consideration. One such Oscar hopeful, The Breadwinner, made it’s way up to our frozen home north of the Wall.
The Breadwinner (2017)
Parvana is a young girl living in Afghanistan in 2001. Her hometown is under Taliban control, and life is hard. Things become dire when a slighted mujahedeen has Parvana’s father arrested. This is a death sentence for both her father and her family; women are not allowed to work or even travel to the market, and there are no men left in Parvana’s immediate family. To get by, Parvana decides to cut her hair and pass herself off as a young man.
A Story of a People
The Breadwinner is an animated tale, crafted by the same studio that gave us The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. If you’ve seen either of these films, you’ll know what to expect here: a tale rich with culture, tradition, and character. The big difference is that The Breadwinner tackles much harder topics, being focused on a young Afghani girl and her ordeals in Taliban controlled Kabul. This leads to a story that is both emotionally inspiring and deeply upsetting. While it elevates the story past trite talking animals and singing princesses, anyone looking for a pat, happy ending might feel cheated.
How cruel life can be for Parvana and the people around her was a frustration to be expected; other aspects of the Breadwinner were not. I had not read the novel of the same name going into the film, so I wasn’t expecting how the movie just… ends. While it avoids the cliché “they all lived happily ever after”, it did leave the audience with many loose threads.
I also felt unsatisfied with the folk tale that unfolds alongside the contemporary story.
Parvana and her family tell a bedtime fable about a young boy and an angry elephant god. It evolves as the story progresses, then it devolves, then just like the movie it ends abruptly. I tried thinking about what these turns did to enhance Parvana’s own story, and I left without any answers. Even the reveal at the fable’s end didn’t really do much for me, and I’m sure it was meant to tug at the heartstrings. All it did for me was break the wall between the real story and the fable.
Almost all of these choices seemed to be by design. I just couldn’t really fathom why this movie was designed that way. If it was to make you feel the frustration of being in an unfair, capricious situation, congratulations: it succeeded. I left with questions about the crafting of this film, not about the lives of the people in the film. That was a big misstep.
Something Shiny without Something that Ensnares.
Everything else about the Breadwinner is a winner. Parvana’s story is both beautiful and desolate. Bright clothing and colorful foods contrast with dilapitated houses and bombed out vehicles. The Boy’s Fable is animated in a stop motion style with paper constructs, and I found it just as inviting as when Disney did the same trick in Moana. The voice acting is strong, and I felt a connection for each character, even the evil ones. The standout was when a man complicit with the Taliban’s oppression learned of the passing of his wife in a IED explosion. Despite his faults, his moment of suffering was poignant; I wasn’t really expecting tears to form for this man, but they did.
It’s a shame then, that The Breadwinner left me feeling let down by the plot. We meet some fantastic characters, and then we say goodbye. The only thing the movie reassures us of is that life, even a bleak one, finds a way to go on. Both Parvana’s story and the Boy’s fable leave you wanting a little more, and they leave you with some inconsistencies that niggle.
At the end of the day, I liked The Breadwinner, but didn’t enjoy it. If that had been because of the tough topic and the constant persecution of women on display, I’d chalk it up to me. But that wasn’t the case, so I can only give The Breadwinner a partial thumbs up. It does something different, and it’s both beautiful and moving, which is to be commended. I just wish it had felt more complete.