Since Shrek won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, major studios have dominated the category: Pixar has eight Oscars; Disney has three. This year’s race looks likely to end with another major studio victory. Pixar’s excellent Coco is gamblers’ (and parents’) overwhelming favorite to win. This is perhaps the only category in which the phrase “it was an honor just to be nominated” really applies. And it is an honor that The Breadwinner, one of two independent films in the category this year, richly deserved. The film, which grossed about $350,000 worldwide, is deeply affecting, beautifully executed, and — notably for those that don’t make it to the movie theater very often — on Netflix.
Based on a young-adult novel by Deborah Ellis and executive produced by Angelina Jolie, The Breadwinner tells the story of Parvana, a young girl in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan who must masquerade as a boy in order to provide for her family after her father is arrested. What follows is so tragic that only animation makes it bearable and, in point of fact, that animation actually helps it overcome the limitations inherent in having been made for children. Over 90 minutes, The Breadwinner presents a stark look at the ways that women are specifically targeted under the Taliban regime and pulls no punches.
If Pixar’s work is characterized by auteur-ish emotional manipulation, The Breadwinner is notable for wringing feeling out of the plot. Even the simple, yet brutal, act of Pavarna’s father, Nurullah, being taken away to prison does more than just create conflict for the characters. In a scene that lasts not even one minute, The Breadwinner portrays the punitive society of Kabul (where an insult can land a one-legged teacher in jail), the anti-women sentiments of the Taliban (not only do the soldiers demand that the women cover themselves before they break the door down, but one of the reasons Nurullah is taken away is that he is teaching books to women), and the distress that will befall Pavarna’s family without their patriarch.
That last point is further illustrated when Pavarna and her mother attempt to go out for food without a male figure; they are accosted by Taliban soldiers yet again, who threaten Fattema while her daughter — and, in turn, the audience — hears every word. The movie never shies away from the realities of their situations, started simply due to a perceived insult, and the fact that it never runs away from the conflict makes it powerful in a way that complements its story without exploiting it.
While a younger audience may not appreciate or even understand the finer points of the film–the realistic violence, the delicate handling of death, and the rendering of a hyper-patriarchal society – the ground-level story of bravery still demands attention. Pavarna is a fantastic heroine and a relatable one at that. She refuses to accept two realities: one, that her father could be held prisoner for a misunderstanding and, two, that her family must suffer by virtue of lacking a male member.
The Breadwinner makes it clear that she is risking her life in order to bring in the money her family needs to survive, as well as the money needed for a bribe to get face-time with her father in prison, and it’s never presented as a certainty that she will succeed. In fact, maybe the movie’s biggest fault is that it places too many contingencies to prepare for her failure; the plot gets convoluted with the introduction of extended family members and arranged marriages, but just the existence of a grim alternative for the family ups the stakes for Pavarna’s quest.
It’s important to note that The Breadwinner is more violent than any of the other Animated Feature nominees; in fact, it might be the most violent nominee in recent memory. There is no skirting around death in Kabul. Not only is it revealed that Parvana’s brother died due to a misplaced explosive, but she also witnesses executions of prisoners deemed too weak to fight by the Taliban. The movie is frank about violence in a way that both cushions some of the blows and feels shocking. As such, it might not be appropriate for more sensitive or younger kids. But for kids that handle complexity and emotions well, it’s an ideal film — and one that can help parents broach important topics of conversation.
Coco has the Oscar in hand and is a deserving winner in its own right. What The Breadwinner deserves is a bigger audience. It’s a caring, respectful movie made with tremendous sensitivity. It’s a movie that might help adults as well as kids understand and empathize with a group of people that has had their humanity obscured by violence and loss.