Eighty-seven minutes in the company of 18-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is time very well spent, and that alone merits a recommendation for “He Named Me Malala,” an expectedly stirring portrait of the exceedingly smart and courageous Pakistani teenager who defied the Taliban and lived to tell the tale. But while it’s difficult to feel anything other than awe and respect for this genuinely inspiring figure, whose advocacy for women’s education worldwide has made her a hero to millions and a target for many, it’s also hard not to wish director Davis Guggenheim had approached Yousafzai’s still-growing legacy with a bit less heart-tugging slickness and a greater willingness to delve beneath the surface. Still, as fronted by an internationally beloved subject whose warmth, intelligence and fierce humanity all but radiate from the screen, this classy, crowd-pleasing Fox Searchlight item could emerge as one of the better-attended theatrical documentaries of recent vintage.
The first thing you may notice about this handsome visual companion piece to “I Am Malala,” the 2013 book that Yousafzai co-authored with Christina Lamb, is the mysterious construction of its title — one that firmly establishes Malala’s father, Ziauddin, as a figure of near-equal prominence in the story. It was Ziauddin, after all, who named her after a legendary Afghanistani heroine who took up her flag and rallied Pashtun fighters against British invaders during the 1880 Battle of Maiwand, which is artfully visualized here in the first of many animated sequences (designed by Jason Carpenter and produced by Irene Kotlarz). While the 19th-century Malala was tragically killed in battle, Malala Yousafzai is happily still with us after having survived a bullet to the head, fired by a Taliban fighter seeking to silence her activism in her Swat Valley home village. Yet the implication is clear enough, and as Ziauddin notes onscreen, he seemed to sense intuitively that his one and only daughter was destined to be a powerful voice for many, and that she might be destined to reap a terrible price for her boldness.
The grim circumstances of the October 2012 attack on Malala in her native Swat Valley — in which a Taliban fighter stopped her school bus and shot her in the head, seeking to silence her activism — are briefly laid out early on, then revisited at length near the end of the film for maximum emotional effectiveness. Before that point, Guggenheim (who filmed over an 18-month period) treats us to warm, intimate footage of the Yousafzai family at home in Birmingham, U.K., seemingly well adjusted to their new life. Unsurprisingly, this is some of the most effortlessly appealing and human-scaled material in the film. We watch as Malala mercilessly teases her two scene-stealing younger brothers, when she’s not spending hours on homework and fretting about exam scores (earning top marks here, she humbly tells us, is a lot harder than it was in the Swat Valley). During a few moments of downtime, Guggenheim has fun trying to get her admit that, despite her unwillingness to adopt Western dating customs, she has a bit of a crush on Pakistani cricketer Shahid Afridi. And Brad Pitt.
The film grants considerable attention to Ziauddin as one of Malala’s own chief inspirations, the man who instilled in Malala her deep love for education and who, in learning to overcome a slight speech impediment, became an early model for her in learning to speak out. By contrast, Malala’s mother, Toor Pekai, seems ill at ease in Birmingham, where she struggles with the language and has few friends; tellingly, her own lack of access to proper education is typical of the worldwide epidemic that her daughter has chosen to fight. It’s a war that takes Malala far and wide; we see her traveling to Kenya, where she speaks with students at a recently opened high school, and Nigeria, where she urges then-president Goodluck Jonathan to do more to aid the nearly 300 girls recently abducted by Boko Haram.
The sincere, unassuming, fearlessly direct style for which Malala has become justly beloved (particularly through her appearances on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” too briefly excerpted here) stems from a firm belief in the equality of the sexes, and an anger at the way the devaluation and mistreatment of Muslim women have “tarnished the beautiful face of Islam.” In surveying that damage, “He Named Me Malala” returns time and again to the Swat Valley, making use of new footage, old TV news clips, and yet more animation. We meet Malala’s friends Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz, who were also shot on the school bus that fateful day and fortunately survived. We learn about the steady rise to power of the militant Islamist Fazlullah, known as the “Radio Mullah” for his broadcasts inciting the locals to commit violence against their “sinful” neighbors, and the man who ordered the assassination attempt on Malala. And while the Taliban has sworn to kill her on sight should she ever return, it hasn’t stopped Malala from hoping to see the dirty streets of her home village again someday — a desire articulated with a sense of yearning that may prove especially eye-opening for Western viewers.
Guggenheim includes some obligatory, man-on-the-street criticism from those who perceive Malala as little more than an opportunistic celebrity, but they’re few and far between in a documentary that views its extraordinary subject with unqualified admiration. Where the film falters is in its willingness to settle for canned uplift, reducing the substance of Malala’s global activism to multicultural montages, goosed by Thomas Newman’s emotional cattle prod of a score. (Still, as musical overkill goes, it’s preferable to the goopy Alicia Keys ballad that drowns out the closing credits.)
Viewers familiar with Guggenheim’s documentaries “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Waiting for Superman” may pick up some nagging similarities here: the reliance on visual aids; the focus on a serious issue in ways both sobering and uplifting; a nagging sense of emotional calculation verging on manipulation. As the final scenes play out, there’s little doubt you’ll brush away tears as the film examines its subject’s wounds and assesses the damage, but emotion shouldn’t get in the way of healthy skepticism. It’s hard to fully trust a film that, structurally speaking, treats Malala Yousafzai’s near-brush with death as the end of her story rather than the beginning.