He Named Me Malala

Movie Information

The Story: Straightforward, informational documentary on Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban in her native Pakistan. The Lowdown: At once solid — as concerns the basic story — and disappointingly insubstantial — as concerns creating a portrait of its famous subject. It's mostly a thumbnail sketch, made reasonably worthwhile by the personalities of Malala Yousafzai and her father.
Genre: Documentary
Director: Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth)
Starring: Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai, Toor Pekai Yousafzai, Khushal Yousafzai, Atal Yousafzai
Rated: PG-13




On some level, Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala qualifies as “Perfectly Fine” — for what it is (and only just). Now, I have nothing but respect for its subject, Malala Yousafzai, and I have no doubt that Guggenheim had the best of intentions in making the film. Unfortunately, we all know where Good Intentions Road is paved to lead. And, if it doesn’t actually reach that destination, no amount of animated distractions (or filler) or endlessly recycled shots of Malala staring thoughtfully out of a car window is going to make the documentary anything other than an inflated featurette that has trouble stretching to feature length. It’s just too tentative and too content to coast on the importance of its subject and her natural charisma — and, even at a brief 87 minutes, is something of a slog. Whether it will draw viewers who want a very straightforward informational documentary remains to be seen.




I am not saying that the film is without merit or that it doesn’t present Malala’s story more or less effectively. No, I’m saying it’s basically a rather dull promo film for a young woman who needs no promotion — and never escapes the sense that it belongs more in a high school auditorium than a movie theater. It’s Malala Yousafzai 101. The problem is that the story of Malala — the young Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban and recovered to become an even stronger advocate for the education of girls, eventually becoming the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize — is too well-known to offer much in the way of revelation.




The film is at its best when it offers seemingly unguarded glimpses into Malala’s home life after she and her family relocate to England. Here, we either get glimpses of the real Malala or, at the very least, a carefully crafted approximation of her. We see her arm wrestle with her brother, look at pictures of sports stars on the Internet and, in general, act like a normal teenager — or as close to one as someone with a remarkable life and who lives on a worldwide stage can. This is good stuff, but it never goes far enough and always pulls away from getting into anything too thorny. There’s a good chance that this has as much to do with Malala as with Guggenheim, since she clearly tends to clam up when she encounters subjects she doesn’t choose to discuss. That’s her right, of course, but it leaves us with a relatively shallow portrait that seems too concerned with charting her progress across the world to the Nobel Prize — at the expense of characterization.


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What keeps the film from collapsing under its own too-careful good intentions comes down to Malala herself and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. It is utterly impossible to not respond to Malala. More, it’s impossible not to genuinely like her. She’s too appealing to resist and the camera loves her. Her father — a man of vision, deeply worried that his teaching and encouragement nearly got his daughter killed — is almost equally irresistible. They keep this often-tepid movie and its unanswered — even un-raised — questions afloat by the sheer force of their personalities, but it’s a very near thing. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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