Parvana is just 11 or 12 but, as a newly minted member of the Taliban tells her father, she is "old enough to marry." This comes mere moments into the new animated film The Breadwinner (from the same team behind 2009's The Secret of Kells and based on the series of novels by Deborah Ellis), and sets the tone for one of the best, if not most harrowing, films this year, animated or not.

It is post-civil war Afghanistan in the early aughts, and the wounds have yet to heal. The Taliban attains more power daily, and common folk are the ones to suffer. Parvana and her family struggle just to get by, sitting regularly at a makeshift market stall amounting to little more than a blanket. But her father was once a teacher, and educated people pose a problem to the skittish Taliban. Thus, when he is arrested and imprisoned for no particular reason, Parvana is forced to pose as a boy to buy food, get work and otherwise leave her home without a male escort; this was truly a man's world.

And it goes beyond mere culture shock to become a subtle dissection of the contemporary Middle East and its still-present chauvinism and misogyny. Villains aren't exactly clear-cut and the tension is ever-present, though it lies in wait in the periphery, building stronger without overpowering the central story of family. Scenes of mute shopkeepers fearing Taliban backlash for serving a girl melt into tense chases with dogmatic military types too young to check their anger, or too drunk with power to tell right from wrong. Parvana, meanwhile, is forced to grow up too fast, navigating authorities and the marginalized by day, telling her infant brother tall tales by night and, all the while, never giving up hope that her father is out there somewhere, still alive.

Director Nora Twomey (Song of the Sea) helms the fascinating tale, which ultimately becomes less about the perils of the day and more about the human ability to adapt and evolve. Voice actor Saara Chaudry (Degrassi: The Next Generation) humanizes Parvana with a layered performance that conveys a flawed yet heroic youth who may have risen reluctantly to challenging conditions, but thrives in knowing she's doing right by her loved ones.

The circumstances may not be familiar to all, but The Breadwinner does hit enough universal themes as to spur us to ask ourselves big questions. Generally speaking, it would be convenient to push its truths out of our minds, but there is value in its stark confrontation of the Middle East's explosive nature. This bodes well for its Oscar chances and makes for a film no one can afford to miss.

9
+Difficult yet vital watching
-Wraps up too neatly

The Breadwinner
Directed by Twomey
with Chaudrey
Center for Contemporary Arts, PG-13, 94 min.