Breadwinner is a word that long ago lost any connection to its original meaning. “The Breadwinner,” an animated feature based on Deborah Ellis’s 2000 children’s novel, powerfully demonstrates how literal the word can be. A simple tale of injustice and female empowerment, the book has sold some 2 million copies worldwide.
The title character is Parvana, an 11-year-old girl in Taliban-ruled Kabul. This is after the Soviets have left Afghanistan but before the fundamentalist rulers have fled. When her street-vendor father is arrested for no good reason, it falls to her to bring home bread to support her mother, older sister, and baby brother.
Parvana’s father had once been a teacher. He taught her to read and write. Her literacy proves crucial to the family’s survival. After cutting her hair, Parvana dresses as a boy and sets up as a sidewalk scribe: reading and writing for illiterate men.
It turns out Parvana is not alone in masquerading as a boy. Shauzia, a former schoolmate, is also working in disguise. “When you’re a boy you can go anywhere you like,” she tells Parvana. The trick is to show no doubt. “If you look like you believe it,” Shauzia says, “they will [believe it], too.”
Belief comes naturally to Parvana. She declares before her father’s arrest that she’s outgrown her childhood fondness in tales and tale telling. “Too old for stories?,” he marvels. “But you’ve always loved stories.”
He knows that she doesn’t mean it, and throughout the movie Parvana tells stories to her little brother. Many involve monsters and a fearsome creature, the Elephant King. The main narrative of “The Breadwinner” has been drawn in a simple, shallow, frieze-like style. These stories within the story provide interludes that look as fantastical as the events and creatures Parvana describes.
The look of the film adds to its feeling almost like a fable, as do the importance of several everyday objects: a torn photograph, an empty water bucket, a child’s bright red dress, a pair of scissors, a crutch belonging to Parvana’s father (he lost a leg in the fight against the Soviets). This is a different kind of fable, though, one that can be all too realistic with life-and-death truths. “All the empires forgot about us,” Parvana’s father says to her, “for a while, at least.”
In theory, it’s a relief to see animation being used as something other than just kids’ stuff. Yet in practice, “The Breadwinner” poses a real problem. While often moving, the story is just as often gruesomely harsh, though never gratuitously so. Taking a child under 12 is not advised.
Things described in words in Ellis’s novel have a far more disturbing impact when seen — or, more often, heard — onscreen. The film’s episodic nature, which serves to underscore the moments of grim drama, adds to the problem. One can only salute the filmmakers’ ambition and seriousness of purpose, but it’s hard to see who “The Breadwinner” audience is.
Directed by Nora Twomey. Written by: Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis; based on Ellis’s children’s novel. At Kendall Square. 93 minutes. PG-13 (thematic material including some violent images).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.