THE BREADWINNER Voices of Saara Chaudry, Soma Bhatia, Laara Sadiq. Directed by Nora Twomey. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday at Village Square.
Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon mined homegrown mythology for its Oscar-nominated first two features, 2009’s The Secret of Kells and 2014’s Song of the Sea, but for the new The Breadwinner, the creators look outward, adapting Deborah Ellis’ best-selling 2000 novel set in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The title character is 11-year-old Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), a bold girl who takes charge of providing for her family after her father gets arrested and sent to prison.
Disguising herself as a boy, Parvana is able to leave her house unaccompanied and earn a living to buy food for her family, all while trying to find a way to free her father. Director Nora Twomey and screenwriter Anita Doron add a fantastical element to Ellis’ grounded narrative, depicting a fable that Parvana tells her little brother Zaki over the course of the film. The paper cutout-style fairy-tale segments recall the studio’s earlier films, but Twomey and her collaborators mine just as much beauty from the stark everyday life of the main characters, as Parvana befriends another girl posing as a boy and explores the freedom of movement that was previously off-limits to her because of her gender.
At the same time, the movie confronts the harsh realities of life for Parvana and her family without flinching, and the storytelling is often bleak, even as Parvana is unwilling to give up. This isn’t really a kids’ movie, even though its protagonist is a child, and the depiction of despair can get a little heavy-handed at times. But the filmmakers know when to pull back and lighten the mood, whether with a return to the fairy tale or a simple moment of friendly bonding, and the hand-drawn animation is always lovely and expressive. It shows how real life can be as haunting as any fantasy story.