Parvana (Saara Chaudry) is a young girl living in Taliban-occupied Kabul. Her father Nurullah (Ali Badshah) was a former teacher and taught Parvana how to read and write. After her father is falsely imprisoned, her family are left destitute as he’s the only adult male and they are not allowed to be seen in public unaccompanied. Driven by desperation, Parvana disguises herself as a boy. Calling herself Aatish, she supports her family through odd jobs, while also looking for a way to find her father. Intercut throughout the movie is a story Parvana tells her little brother Zaki of a young boy who tries to save his village from an evil Elephant King who stole their food.
The Breadwinner, based on a 2000 novel by Deborah Ellis, is the latest film from Kilkenny-based animation studio Cartoon Saloon. Their previous two features, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, were both celebrated and receipt of Academy Award nominations, which this film has also received. On top of designing a distinct style and tone, they have a certain focus on children and blending the fantastical and imaginative in ordinary situations. Without meaning any disrespect to their previous two outings, which I also highly recommend, this may be their best.
The animation is of the usual standard of Cartoon Saloon. This is their first film set outside Ireland, and they do a great job with getting across the look and feel of Afghanistan. The colours are a little starker to reflect the tone, and everything feels a lot harsher and more tense. That’s not to take away from the beauty and general fun of the world building. This is also reflected in the art style of the Elephant King segments, which is a lot more fluid and bouncy than the Kabul setting, I really love how the style and tone changes with the emotions of our storyteller.
Most of all, the world feels complex and lived-in. Seeing how characters react and interact gives us a great sense of how people live in different conditions you may not be familiar with, and portrays it in an empathetic and understandable condition for children. There is a subplot involving Parvana striking an unlikely friendship with Taliban solder Razaq, and it really hits to the heart of the story about how we find humanity in even the most inhumane conditions. This culminates in the Elephant King story, which really hits home the power of storytelling and how it gives us hope. I love stories about stories and their impact, and this one really depicts the power of empathy and identity.
I don’t want to reveal much else, this film is great. It’s emotional and impactful, and has a lot of important themes and messages told in an easy to identify way. It’s got a solid voice cast and achingly beautiful animation, and really got me to feel all the feelings. I cannot recommend you go see this enough. It’s a worthy story telling you about the impact stories have.