Hollywood hype-masters use the word “inspiring” to sell movies to us all the time, but this new documentary from Davis Guggenheim trumps anything Hollywood could invent, because it focuses on a young woman who is genuinely inspiring. Now all of 18 years old, Malala Yousafzai is a remarkable human being: she survived a shooting by a Pakistani death squad but bears no grudge against her would-be assassins. She has become an outspoken advocate for education, especially for girls, around the world. She is about to enter college. And she won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Guggenheim opens his film with an animated prologue that introduces us to her namesake; a celebrated Pakistani heroine led her loyal troops into battle in 1880. By giving her that name, Malala’s father Ziauddin set the bar high for his only daughter and she has exceeded his expectations with courage and conviction. But when we first meet her, she is teasing her two brothers, a reminder that even a girl who has achieved worldwide fame is still a teenager in the everyday world.
This portrait of Malala and her influential father skips back and forth in time, showing us what happened that fateful day in 2012 when assassins attacked her school bus and shot her, as well as two of her friends. We learn how her father trod his own path as a teacher and public speaker and passed along a love of learning to his daughter. And we travel around the globe with Malala as she speaks out on behalf of girls and women everywhere who deserve a decent education.
The filmmaker’s decision to use animation, designed by Jason Carpenter, pays off in a series of handsome sequences that fill in blanks where no footage could possibly exist.
Not many documentaries can boast a score by a composer as prominent as Thomas Newman, who takes his cues from the emotional triggers on screen. At 87 minutes the film never wears out its welcome, and Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman,makes no pretense of being objective or aloof about his subject here. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to be unmoved by Malala’s story, as well as her remarkable poise and eloquence. All of that is reflected in this straightforward and winning film.