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Movie Review

A teenager and a global symbol, by any other name

Malala Yousafzai in Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “He Named Me Malala.”
Malala Yousafzai in Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “He Named Me Malala.”

‘He Named Me Malala” is a documentary torn between inspiration and empathy. Why not have both? Isn’t the true-life saga of Malala Yousafzai big enough to contain multitudes? Director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) labors mightily to convey both his subject’s meaning as a global symbol of female strength and power and the realities of her life as a teenage girl. But there are places in this well-made and very well-intentioned film in which the two sides of Malala seem to cancel each other out and we know less about her than when we started.

The film is worthy, obviously, and it forces us to think about the prices paid by our unexpected heroes. Certainly Malala’s story is one of the most horrifying and uplifting of recent years. Shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 for speaking out against its campaign to eradicate education for women, Yousafzai survived and has become an eloquent icon of defiance and resilience. With her father, Ziauddin, she travels the globe offering solidarity with girls and women beleaguered by repressive ideologies and regimes. She has written a best-selling book and spoken at the UN. She won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize (sharing it with Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi), the youngest recipient ever. This past July, Malala opened a school for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. She’s now 18.

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At the center of this awe-inspiring story is a young woman struggling to balance private and public selves in a new life far from home. Malala cuts a sympathetic figure in Guggenheim’s film precisely because we see her confidence and insecurities in daily adolescent conflict. Airlifted for medical treatment to Birmingham, England, she now lives in that city with her father, mother, and two brothers, unable to return to a Pakistan and a home in the Swat Valley where she would surely be attacked anew.

“He Named Me Malala” offers glimpses of what it must be like to be venerated by millions yet isolated on a day-to-day basis. The smartest girl in her class in Pakistan, Malala finds herself struggling to keep up in the British school system. She brushes aside questions about wanting a boyfriend while blushing and giggling when Guggenheim asks her about those photos of Roger Federer and Brad Pitt on her walls. Then she flies off to meet with the parents of schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, offering solace and solidarity.

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As long as it sticks to this unique double vision, “He Named Me Malala” is eye-opening. But Guggenheim keeps doubling back to fill in the events leading up to the shooting, and while we get a thorough grounding in how the mullahs of the Taliban slowly closed off freedoms until none were left, there’s a lot of impressionistic re-creations, wispy animations, and vaguely confusing timeframes.

The film understands what Malala means to 21st-century public life — especially to girls and women around the world — and what she wants herself to mean, but while it shows us the actual person at the center of the persona, it’s not clear enough on how the two interconnect. Malala gives wonderful, epic speeches — does she write them herself? It would be nice to think so. The movie doesn’t let on, doesn’t really show us the work that goes into maintaining Malala the global icon.

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Likewise, the film never fully clarifies the relationship between the girl and her father. Ziauddin describes them as “one soul in two different bodies,” yet also describes his guilt over the Taliban attack — that the outspokenness he cultivated in Malala almost led to her death. Her name (we learn in one of those animations) comes from a Pashtun folk-hero, “the Afghan Joan of Arc,” who led and died in the fight against the British during the 1880 Battle of Maiwand, and Ziauddin wonders if naming is destiny. For her part, Malala insists that her father “didn’t push me. He let me do what I wanted.”

The truth is doubtless as complex as any family dynamic, and the filmmakers may think it a disservice to Malala’s meaning and accomplishments to press too deeply. (Among those accomplishments is the forceful stating of a more peaceful and progressive Islam than many in the West want to believe exists.) “I’m still an ordinary girl from Swat Valley,” she says, and Guggenheim is invested in that idea as a beacon of hope: If she can do it, so can others — so can you or your daughters.

But Malala Yousafzai isn’t ordinary, and the film backs away from showing us how or why. We may someday look back on “He Named Me Malala” as a film that told us much about a future world leader — or one that told us surprisingly little.

★ ★ ★

He Named Me Malala

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Directed by Davis Guggenheim. Written by Guggenheim, Laurie MacDonald, and Walter F. Parkes. Starring Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 87 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, including disturbing images and threats).


Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.