THE BREADWINNER — Review by Cynthia Fuchs

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breadwinner poster“Stay inside where you belong.” Again and again in The Breadwinner, 11-year-old Parvana (Saara Chaudry) is reminded of her place. A girl in 2001 Kabul, she’s surrounded by war and threatened by the Taliban. She’s not supposed to read, think for herself, or go outside without a man, she’s not supposed to show her face and she’s certainly not supposed to work a job. A the same time, however, her father Nurullah (Ali Badshah), a teacher, encourages her to explore the world around her, to feel confident and to tell and listen to stories, because, he says, “Stories remain in our hearts even when all else is gone.” Continue reading…

This idea is put to the test when Nurullah is imprisoned. With her mother Fattema (Laara Sadiq) ailing and her older brother Sulayman killed by a mine before the film begins, Parvana faces the task of feeding her family, including her older sister Soraya (Shaista Latif) and little brother Zaki. To do so, she poses as a boy, a decision rendered in a phenomenal scene: as Soraya cuts her hair, the shot cuts from Parvana’s face in a mirror to her long dark locks falling to the floor. The moment is at once thrilling and frightening, as she takes a risk that’s likely unfathomable outside Parvana’s experience. And that’s the point: the difference between outside and inside in The Breadwinner is a difference between life and death, between hope and fear, between telling stories and remaining silent.

Parvana’s adventures provide plenty of lessons for kids who might watch Nora Twomey’s elegantly animated film. They also speak to issues that most adults would find harrowing: her mother is beaten nearly to death in front of her, and no one knows what’s become of her father once he’s dragged off in the night. Still, she learns valuable lessons, for instance, that “When you’re a boy, you can go anywhere you like.” Or, in her friend Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), also posing as a boy, she discovers a remarkable friend and clever ally, someone with whom she shares concerns and some solutions.

At the same time, Parvana creates art and energy in the stories she tells Zaki, inspiring and distracting him as the movie takes on another set of possibilities, in community, history, and incredible beauty. Dreaming of her brother Sulayman, she finds herself as a boy with particular freedoms and as a girl who sees what boys can do. Here the film’s fantasy — colorful, lovely, expansive — serves a few purposes, not only showing Parvana’s courage, but also, reminding you that the limits she faces are not unique to Kabul or the past. Girls everywhere — including the US, of course — face challenges, dangers, and restrictions. Parvana’s quest becomes layered and complicated, as she looks to save her family, rescue her father, and remember her brother. Finding herself outside and inside, Parvana offers all of us a way forward.

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Cynthia Fuchs

Cynthia Fuchs is Film and TV reviews editor at and director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.