The Breadwinner review: The Oscar nominee comes to Netflix

Photo credit: The Breadwinner/Elevation Pictures, Acquired via Elevation Pictures
Photo credit: The Breadwinner/Elevation Pictures, Acquired via Elevation Pictures /

The Oscars are upon us and one predictable category is the Best Animated Feature category, which points at Coco winning. But there’s one animated nominee that seems to have flown under the radar: The Breadwinner.

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Making a story with the Taliban as its central conflict is something of a gigantic risk, both creatively and morally. On one hand, there’s the issue with creativity. How could a topic like this be shown in a manner that’s respectfully creative and cinematic? Then there’s the issue with the morals behind the story. A sensitive topic like living under the Taliban inevitably calls for a line to be drawn on what’s respectful and what’s exploitative. This is a real situation for many people under the Taliban, something which author, Deborah Ellis, recognized and tackled with dignity and respect in her 2000 novel, The Breadwinner.

A critically acclaimed hit in the literary world, The Breadwinner gained much admiration for its subject matter and poetic execution of a tough subject like oppression under the Taliban. With such a beloved reputation, the idea for an animated adaptation seemed almost necessary at that point. With the help of director Nora Twomey and executive producer Angelina Jolie the adaptation came to light, being released at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Now, the film, as of this writing, is currently nominated for Best Animated Feature and best of all, the adaptation is available to watch on American Netflix! But how does the film present itself as an overall work of art?

The New Head of the Family

Photo credit: The Breadwinner/Elevation Pictures, Acquired via Elevation Pictures
Photo credit: The Breadwinner/Elevation Pictures, Acquired via Elevation Pictures /

The Breadwinner, much like its literary counterpart, focuses on 11-year old Parvana, who lives a relatively sheltered life with her father, mother, and two siblings in Kabul, Afghanistan. Kabul is at a state of despair and war, being ruled by the Taliban. This causes nothing but trouble for Parvana, who cannot be seen alone in public due to being a female. What’s worse is her father’s senseless arrest, which forces Parvana to cut off her hair and go as a boy to become the inadvertent breadwinner of her family.

Less of a straightforward film on the Taliban rule and more of a coming-of-age film with a dark background, The Breadwinner takes a tough subject matter and constructs a respectable and competent film on living through oppression through the eyes of a young girl.

The story itself takes no pleasure in showcasing material that could be considered TOO graphic, at least for the eyes. Much of the film’s disturbing content, which I must warn, does include beatings and mass executions, is implied and shown off-screen, as we mostly get the characters’ reactions to the events taking place. The film does not show much of what’s happening, but never does it sugarcoat the otherwise sobering and harsh realities taking place in the film’s universe. A respectful decision for the topic, even if it leaves the rest of the film feeling meandering and stretched out.

The film’s pacing suffers as a result of the story focusing on Parvana going into town and grabbing goodies for the family, which grounds the film’s universe, but doesn’t make for an especially riveting watch. The Breadwinner takes its time in establishing the story and characters into the war-torn setting, which unfortunately hinders its rewatchability.

Parvana and Company

Photo credit: The Breadwinner/Elevation Pictures, Acquired via Elevation Pictures
Photo credit: The Breadwinner/Elevation Pictures, Acquired via Elevation Pictures /

It doesn’t help The Breadwinner‘s case that the film’s characters, while not exactly one-dimensional or poorly written, are far from the most memorable characters to attach to. It’s understandable that the film would want to present these characters in a sober and realistic manner, keeping consistency with the film’s realistic universe. Because of that, however, the audience is subjected to a slow narrative filled with well-meaning but thin and underwritten characters that struggle to hold the viewer’s attention.

There are a few exceptions to the above statement: Parvana, our main protagonist, Shauzia, a girl in a similar predicament as Parvana, and Razaq, an illiterate man with a kind heart. Parvana has enough of a presence to keep the audience invested in her situation, as she’s arguably the only member of her family with a decent amount of depth to her. Shauzia is similar, arguably even more well-written than Parvana, as she gradually grows from the cliched side character to a watchable and charming presence onscreen. Her motivations are clear and despite her lack of screentime compared to Parvana, she makes the most of it with a sassy, yet subtle approach to her personality.

Lastly, there’s Razaq, one of the bigger surprises of the film. Initially introduced towards the beginning of the film as an antagonistic presence, Razaq grows beyond his caricature and reveals some depth of his own. Though unfortunately underwritten and with even less screentime than either Parvana or Shauzia, Razaq’s fond and gentile nature makes him a pleasant surprise from the usual strict nature of Kabul citizens. Beyond that, we don’t get much in terms of characters with the other people in the universe beyond their usual roles of worried mother, supportive sister and aggressive and oppressive men. While the reality of this is unmistakable, it still felt like a chore to watch underwritten characters for the majority of the film.


Arguably the biggest issue to be had with The Breadwinner was the somewhat pointless gimmick of it being animated. To put it simply, what was even the point of animating the film? Unlike films like Coco, The Boss Baby or Loving Vincent, where the animation adds personality to the film’s universe, the film doesn’t contribute much through its competent, but uninspired animation. The animation stands out the most in these storytelling sequences where the characters are telling tales to each other. Even then, the inclusion of the sequences already feels a little out-of-place, interrupting the film at frequent intervals to tell a story that seemingly has no other purpose but to showcase some neat visual flare. There’s a nice wrinkle added to the stories at film’s end, but it doesn’t make up for the pointless nature of them.

Photo credit: The Breadwinner/Elevation Pictures, Acquired via Elevation Pictures
Photo credit: The Breadwinner/Elevation Pictures, Acquired via Elevation Pictures /

Watching the film, I, as a viewer, had no clue about the film being an adaptation of a novel. However, while watching, I couldn’t help but notice that the film’s flow felt similar to that of a novel in the wind-down portion of the book. Seeing as how this is indeed an adaptation, it came as no surprise, given the film’s unnecessarily wordy screenplay and the storytelling sequences. I could see their narrative usefulness in terms of a novel, but with film, the story must adjust to the medium if it hopes to have a long life on somebody’s watchlist. Here, the story seems a little too inspired by the book, leaving The Breadwinner to be a dragged out, bland and uninspired adaptation of a great story.


The Breadwinner can best be described with this term: unused potential. The film had a great chance at becoming a memorable and poignant story of oppression and growing up and in many ways, it is. The story’s bluntness and brutal honesty was a refreshing change of pace from an otherwise watered down film on a tough subject matter. The voice acting helped prop up the film and it’s the kind of story that those of us living outside of this area do need to learn about, even just a little. The intentions to make a great film were certainly there, but it is hampered by a choppy and dragged out pace, bland visuals and an overall lack of true spark or personality. The Breadwinner, as a film, just exists, nothing more, nothing less.

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It’s a true shame, considering the film’s intentions to raise awareness to the state of life over in Afghanistan. There’s a need to tell this story, but the film itself struggles to lend itself over to something considered even remotely cinematic. This is a film that, unfortunately, might not have a long shelf life in terms of film. There doesn’t seem to be a need to watch the film again, and not because of its dark content, but because outside of some great qualities, it’s not interesting enough to warrant a rewatch. If you were to decide to watch this, it is on Netflix, so no extra charge there. But maybe just stick to the book if you want to truly feel a connection with The Breadwinner.

Final Verdict: 5/10

The Breadwinner is available to stream on Netflix now.