Angelina Jolie seems to have developed a taste for movies about the effects of war on families, and women in particular, since her critical success directing the harrowing Netflix original First They Killed My Father, set during the era of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. For The Breadwinner, she turns executive producer, switches from live action to animation, with The Secret of Kells director Nora Twomey taking on direction duties, and moves the action to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan on the eve of the 2001 US invasion.
Given the setting, it’s no surprise that the film is no less harrowing than its predecessor for the new location, although it is testament to Twomey’s skill in directing in the animated medium that it achieves this in a form more commonly associated with Disney princesses and children’s movies.
Pavana is an 11-year old girl growing up with her family in Taliban-controlled Kabul. She spends her days selling junk by the side of the road with her father Nurallah, a former teacher whose career prospects have stalled twice over because of the Taliban's crackdown on intellectuals and the loss of a leg in the Russian invasion.
When Nurallah is thrown in jail without charge after incurring the wrath of a sadistic Taliban member with designs on his daughter, the family are left in crisis. Pavana, her mother and sister are strictly forbidden from working, shopping at the market, or even leaving the house alone. Yet they, along with baby Zaki, all need to eat. With options exhausted, Pavana takes a brave decision. She cuts off her hair, disguises herself as a boy, and heads out to eke out a living for her family on the tough streets of Kabul.
It's heart rending stuff, and if you’re expecting Mulan-style redemption for the plucky Parvana, you may be left disappointed. Twomey’s choice of lo-fi 2D animation and dull colourscapes adds to the despairing nature of proceedings, while a sub-plot taken from a fable Pavana tells to her young brother throughout the film, about a brave young boy who sets out to save his village from an evil elephant king is shot in a contrasting, colourful, cut-out, folk art style, hinting at the joy to be found in a child’s imagining, but itself offering a decidedly double-edged form of positivity at its conclusion.
The film is undoubtedly an artistic success, although I do question the commercial logic for approaching the subject matter in cartoon form. Parvana's story is one that deserves wide viewing, but one has to suspect that most adult audiences wouldn't seek out a cartoon to watch on their weekend off, while the subject matter is far too disturbing for kids – graphic state-sanctioned beating of women and children being blown up by cuddly toy IEDs are two of the grisly topics on offer. The film's PG-13 rating honestly seems lenient given some of the disturbing scenes it contains.
The biggest criticism of The Breadwinner for me is not one of the film itself, which is undoubtedly a triumph of storytelling, but simply that I'm not sure exactly who it intends to tell the story to.