This afternoon’s Telluride Film Festival showing of Davis Guggenheim‘s He Named Me Malala (Fox Searchlight, 10.2) was very warmly received. The people on my gondola coming down from the Chuck Jones Cinema were beaming, almost swooning. They were reacting, trust me, more to the subject matter than the film itself. Which feels and plays like a lesson, a sermon, an 80-something minute educational piece that…you know, we all need to see and contemplate and so on. It’s a good-for-you spinach movie, as I supposed it would be yesterday.
Malala Yousafzai, the star and subject of Davis Guggenheim/s He Named Me Malala, vis Skype feed during a post-screening discussion.
One can’t help but feel touched and inspired by the saga of teenaged Pakistani education activist (and current resident of Birmingham, England) Malala Yousafzai, and particularly how she managed to not only survive being shot in the head three years ago (when she was 15) by a Taliban fanatic, but how she recovered and continued to campaign for female education in Pakistan and other Muslim countries, and how she won the Nobel Peace Prize late last year. The more this film is seen worldwide (particularly in Middle-Eastern territories where the suppression of women is appalling), the better.
But Guggenheim’s film is just okay. If you wanted to be a sorehead you could say it almost flirts with mediocrity. But I don’t want to say that because I don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing it. He Named Me Malala stands for the right things, shows the right things, says the right things and uses watercolor-like animation to convey portions of Malala’s life…all to the good. But it never seems to find any kind of levitational groove or strategy that would result in a 2 + 2 = 5 equation.
I’m trying not to put He Named Me Malala down too much. I bdlieve too much for the cause of expanded education, which is the single most important in the world as ignorance is surely the cause of all the world’s ills. But if I were Fox Searchlight I wouldn’t count on cartwheel reviews or a great surge of award-season enthusiasm. It’s a “respectable” film for its content, but the cinematic or organizational chops aren’t what they could or should be.
Variety‘s Kris Tapley tweeted that Malala’s story “is important, obviously, for its message, [but] Guggenheim’s decisions with structure still baffle me.”
First Showing‘s Alex Billington tweeted that He Named Me Malala is “beautiful…a refreshingly optimistic telling of Malala’s remarkable story, and the power of speaking up/out.”
The screening was compromised twice by lights coming on in the Chuck Jones Cinema. Twice! And the Skype feed of Malala (who was in Birmingham) during a post-screening chat with moderator Ken Burns, Guggenheim and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who figures almost as strongly in the film as Malala herself, was a technical disaster. Malala was viewable but she couldn’t hear anything for four or five minutes. And then when the audio started working you could the delayed-sound echoing on her end. It was a joke.