Girls passing for boys was a staple of Shakespeare’s comedies, but the stakes were never so precariously high as they are for young Parvana. In Taliban-dominated Kabul, the arrest of her father, the male head of household, effectively imposes house-arrest on his wife and daughters. For their continued subsistence survival, Parvana must pass herself off as a boy, but the consequences will be unspeakably brutal if she is discovered. Islamist misogyny and intolerance have dire consequences in Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner, an animated GKIDS release, which opens this Friday in New York.
Parvana’s father Nurullah is a former schoolteacher, but the former Soviet occupiers cost him a leg and the current Taliban oppressors left him unemployed. Books and photos are now forbidden and women can only leave their homes accompanied by a senior family member. When a former pupil has Nurullah arrested out of spite and fundamentalist fervor, there is no one left at home to shop for food or earn money. As their supplies dwindle, Parvana tries to make purchases at the market, but no vendor will risk incurring the Taliban’s wrath by selling to her.
Out of desperation, Parvana disguises herself as a boy, donning the clothes of a brother killed by a Soviet booby-trap. In the short term, Parvana develops the survival skills necessary for day-to-day survival. She also rekindles a friendship with Shauzia, a former classmate in very much the same situation. However, her long-term goal of securing her father’s freedom remains elusive. Thus far, she only has a beating to show for her efforts.
Frankly, the punch to the solar plexus she takes from a prison guard is far from the most brutal attack on women viewers witness in Breadwinner. GKIDS has often pushed the envelope of animation sophistication, perhaps mostly notably with the urbane and elegiac Chico & Rita, but Breadwinner is easily their toughest film yet. Its PG-13 rating is debatable, but there is no question Twomey shows the violent, intolerant realities of life under the Taliban, in uncompromisingly vivid terms. There is also a messiness to the conclusion that will frustrate naïve viewers, but it stays admirably true to reality.
Twomey co-directed The Secret of the Kells and served as “voice director” of Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea, which are certainly credits that inspire confidence, but Breadwinner is still a shockingly powerful cinematic statement. Arguably, Deborah Ellis’s YA novel could only be adapted as an animated film, because a live-action feature would place its primary lead in grave danger, much like the young actor in The Kite Runner, except it would be even worse for a girl. Regardless, Twomey and screenwriter Anita Doron do right by Ellis’s characters and the real-life girls and women they represent.
Despite the desperate circumstances Parvana faces, Twomey’s animated is often quite lovely. Yet, there is more truth in Breadwinner than most “adult” films released this year. Thanks to this film and Loving Vincent, 2017 has already proved itself as an exceptional year for animation. If one of them does not win an Oscar, it will be time to seriously consider abolishing the Academy. Very highly recommended, The Breadwinner opens this Friday (11/17) in New York, at the IFC Center downtown and the Landmark 57 in Midtown way west.