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Movie Review: 'He Named Me Malala'

Is the the powerful and inspiring He Named Me Malala also worthy of Oscar glory?

Review by Matt Cummings

The story behind the Pakistani 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai is inspiring in a way that's hard to find these days. So much of our western culture focuses on wealthy socialites, rap stars, and prima donna athletes that when the genuine article arrives, we wonder if a marketing company had something to do with it. But if the documentary He Named Me Malala proves one thing, it's that its subject seems genuinely inspiring, while making a strong case for Oscar contention.

It focuses on the life of Yousafzai, who became an international symbol for advancing human rights, even after a Taliban attack left her nearly dead. Rather than disappear into fear of further attacks, Malala and her father Ziauddin defied the Taliban, and in doing became the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. That's a tall achievement, especially when a bullet smashes through your skull, leaving you partially paralyzed. The film takes us through her recovery, visits with aspiring girls and grieving parents, and celebrates the will of one woman to demand equal treatment, even when her people's history demands something very different.

Mixing a variety of portable HD cameras with beautiful pastel animation, Malala transitions rather effortlessly between them, though some claim it contributes to the film's detriment. Forget it: the animation is expertly timed and keeps us from depending on talking heads to move the story forward. We learn that her name was taken from a brave teenager who encouraged her countrymen to stand and fight, and how her father began questioning the Taliban, earning their wrath and a promise of revenge. But where Director/Producer Davis Guggenheim shines is during the home scenes, when Malala and family can just be a cheery, kidding, loving unit. Seriously, some of the best parts involve Malala and her brothers talking crap about one another, or Malala finding her book on her own shelf with an autograph from herself. It humanizes a face that's become a worldwide sensation, and makes her success even that much easier to support.

Malala also succeeds because it addresses the elephant in the room: the claim that the girl is merely a mouthpiece for the father, or that she was prodded to speak out. All one has to do is watch the ending - as if there wasn't enough evidence prior - as Malala herself addresses the question head on, in typical Malala style. The result is simple, and recognizes her intelligence as it serves as a beacon for her indomitable spirit.

And while the story is powerful and affecting, the way Malala is edited could be its downfall when Oscar noms are handed out. Its non-traditional approach might remind us of the girl and her father's unique approach to life itself, but here it jumps around too much for those uneducated about her story. Malala is seen all over the world one moment, then in school in another, then on the operating table after that. It almost feels as if she did her charitable work first, then was shot sometime afterwards. Sure, it easily defines this extraordinary young woman's turbulent life, but I think it tries too hard to sell itself when the subject matter is already so compelling.

Sometimes a subject is so powerful, it shines on its own. If there's anything to criticize about He Named Me Malala is that its glitzy, emotional heartbeats are timed more than they needed to be. Her story is one for all people everywhere, but it didn't need a freshening up to remain relevant. The good news is that we should have plenty of time to debate its merits, as an Oscar nom for documentary should be a no-brainer.

He Named Me Malala is rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats and has a runtime of 87 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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