He Named Me Malala, Parent Movie Review: Is It OK for Kids?

Parent Review of new documentary about Malala Yousafzai

He Named Me Malala opens this week, and some of our older kids are going to want to see it. Malala Yousafzai is kind of like this generation’s Anne Frank: an articulate, wise-beyond-her-years teenage girl who remains optimistic about our world’s prospects for peace despite her own encounter with unspeakable evil. Malala is a child, but her story is not necessarily for children. I wanted to check it out before taking my own kids.

Most of us are familiar with Malala’s story. She is the spunky young scholar who persisted in attending school despite the Taliban’s mandate against educating women and girls in her home country of Pakistan. Supported by her family, Malala defied the orders and continued to attend school, blogging about her experiences via the BBC. She stood up; she stood out and was punished for doing so with a gunshot to her head.

On the one hand, Malala is a great role model for all children. As a writer, she has found her voice and uses it to speak up for what is right. She is passionate about education and cherishes her opportunities to learn. What parent hasn’t had a child complain about school? And yet what child would not understand that having to go to school is a better dilemma than never being allowed to attend in the first place? The problem with Malala’s story is that it is one of terribly brutal violence. Most of us strive to shield our young ones from the darker aspects of life, and while it is easy to say that what happened to Malala could never happen to them, our kids are smart enough to know that no one can make that promise.

So He Named Me Malala is definitely not a film for young children. There is some graphic imagery, including lingering footage of the blood stained school bus. We see Malala in the hospital, and we know what happened to her. She is permanently disfigured and mostly deaf in one ear.

Middle and high school aged students are likely to already be familiar with Malala’s story. Her book is on many school reading lists. For older kids who already know what to expect and hopefully won’t personalize the violence against a child, this is a wonderful film, which is most engaging when Malala reveals herself to be a typical teenage girl. She blushes while caught looking at pictures of Roger Federer and David Beckham on her computer. Her brothers adore her but complain that she is too bossy and too devoted to school. Meanwhile, Malala frets about low scores and trying to catch up, now that she goes to school in England and has fallen a year behind.

One interesting aspect of Malala’s story, and something worth discussing with your kids if you see the movie together, is her relationship with her father. Ziauddin Yousafzai is a remarkable man. We learn at the outset, in a beautifully animated sequence, that he named his first born child after Malalai of Maiwand, the Pashtun Joan of Arc, who gave her own life while encouraging Afghan soldiers to stand up against British colonialists. In a moving sequence, Ziauddin talks about looking at his family tree, which goes back hundreds of years yet does not record a single female relative. This is not the legacy he wants for his daughter.

One question that plagues father and daughter is whether Malala acts on her own or rather serves as her father’s mouth piece. The film addresses this. The Yousafzais acknowledge that Malala is her father’s daughter but also remain firm that her actions belong to her alone.

In many ways, He Named Me Malala is a movie whose best audience is teenagers. Malala is one of them, yet her story has the arc of a super hero. As a child who speaks out for and effects change, Malala is an inspiration to her peers. For adults, the movie may be a bit slow. We know the story, and there are no surprises. Our kids, however, are likely to come to the story fresh and be engaged by Malala, her family, and the glimpse into their Muslim culture and life in Pakistan under Taliban rule.

While I am a huge fan of movies screened in theaters, this is one case in which watching at home may be the way to go. Don’t send your kids to He Named Me Malala; watch it with them. Make use of the pause button to stop and talk about the issues of gender inequality, religious oppression and standing up for what is right. Talk to your kids about the fact that Malala’s story did not end with a gunshot but rather began there. Her journey continues. She has taken her tragedy and turned it into a positive. Her life’s work is to promote education for women and girls. She is the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and the power of her story continues to promote her message.

Check out our other Parent Film Reviews.