In The Breadwinner, nine-year-old Parvana is a normal child with downcast eyes and a pendant for bickering with her elder sister. But she is surrounded and ruled by chaos that masquerades as normalcy. She’s a small girl residing in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the city of Kabul where gun-wielding guards patrol the streets. To provide for the family, she assists her father in selling old possessions, including a jeweled dress she has never worn. But a Taliban guard, in a fit of humiliation, arrests her father (also his former teacher) without cause. With the man of the house gone, Parvana’s family has no safe means of attaining food in an illogical society that leaves no lawful and practical means for women to exit their homes without a male escort. Parvana cuts her hair and dons her late brother’s clothes, a disguise to bypass the systemic oppression and attain food and jobs.
Based on the young adult book series by Deborah Ellis, Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has given a challenging debut by animator Nora Twomey with the ingredients of social and feminist consciousness. It offers a matter-of-fact but weighty portrait of the real-life chauvinism that storms Parvana's society. While the historical context is not delved into--in the father’s version of events, the arrival of the fundamentalist regime is depicted as creeping black clouds, a silent villain--every stroke of The Breadwinner delicately handles a hardscrabble society. Twoney keeps the violence personalized and internal without downplaying. In one brutal scene, a guard beats Parvana’s mother and in the chilling aftermath the physical damage is concealed underneath her burqa as she curls up in a fetal position, unable to reveal her brokenness to her children. Twoney pushes explicit epic war carnage to offscreen-mentioned horrors, and the countrywide impact is understood by the sight of abandoned battlefields littered with defunct tanks and planes that thunder overhead Parvana’s family.
Twoney juxtapositions the magic of a folklore with the crass reality of the world. Interspersed with Parvana’s exploits is an old hero’s journey told in cut-out animation (actually digital, but it sustains the illusion so well) in a pop-up book fashion, where an ordinary hero braves the unknown to retrieve harvest seeds from a bestial evil.
Compared to Cartoon Saloon’s previous features, Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, Twoney’s picture applies a more measured minimalism in contrast to Moore’s tapestry-rich backgrounds. The scope of dusty landscapes with scant details is a calculated aesthetic to widen Parvana’s isolation in her world. But Twoney also allows a painterly beauty, suggesting what could have been. Interestingly, The Breadwinner was initially conceived to be a live-action adaptation. But it is difficult to imagine the film resonating as well in the full flesh. Parvana, her family and her land are full of dimensions with Twoney’s brushstrokes and edges.
The movie also paints a multi-colored portrait of female relationships with richness seldom fleshed out in mainstream animation. Parvana discovers that a former classmate Shauzia has also donned the boy clothes, and they trade advice and dreams, with the former dreaming about fleeing to a paradise away from her abusive father. Parvana also butts head with her eldest sister, but in a dialogue-free sequence, when Parvana decides to don her late brother’s clothes, her sister tenderly takes the scissors and trims her hair, an acknowledgment of quiet social rebellion and sisterhood. Parvana’s mother also receives a moment of triumph.
Harkening from Cartoon Saloon’s earlier pursuits, Breadwinner continues the classic motif about the connective powers of storytelling. Soon, Parvana’s tale assumes an unexpected but thematic shape of its own in a payoff I cannot spoil. Critics found the story-within-a-story interruptive to the realism, but they have overlooked the necessary parallelism. In storyland, miracles happen and emeralds pop out of thin air and the dead hero is resurrected to the pulse of a magic drum. In Parvana’s life, benevolence can happen in a world of casualties but survival is all a lottery of chance as much as wits.
With the 90th Academy Awards around the corner this March, I do not want to pit The Breadwinner against its biggest competitor, Pixar’s CGI box-office hit Coco, which is an eye-popping creative celebration of family and Mexican culture. Both films can co-exist without rivalry despite their tonal distinction: Coco dances with revelry while the other is bittersweet. But compared to The Breadwinner, Coco would be a played-safe choice if it wins the Oscar, considering Pixar’s numerous past victories. While Cartoon Saloon productions are no stranger to Oscar nods, Cartoon Saloon has yet to match the fame of Studio Ghibli to United States audiences, but it has earned its right to consider itself an overseas powerhouse in league with Ghibli.
In the wider world, the war is not won. Parvana’s family is still in a prison of their own society, but they have a grasp on hope. To say that The Breadwinner should be the Best Animation winner of 2017 is a distraction from a forgone possibility. It is worth a leap, however, to say this should have been a contender for Best Picture.