- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the entertainment lives of families, provides reviews of the latest movies from a parenting perspective. For more reviews, click on www.commonsensemedia.org.

‘The Kite Runner’

Rating: PG-13

Common Sense Media: Pause. For ages 14 and older.

(out of five stars)

Running time: 122 minutes

Common Sense review: “Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them in with your favorite colors.” Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) is worried that his 12-year-old son, Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi), isn’t living up to expectations, and this advice from Baba’s friend Rahim (Shaun Toub), is hardly soothing. But, as “The Kite Runner” shows, even if Baba could make his boy perfectly courageous and honest, outside forces, whether good or bad, inevitably affect even the most careful plans for the future.

The movie opens in 2000, in San Francisco, where an adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla) has lived for years. Having left Afghanistan as a boy, his first novel has just been published, and he’s married to infinitely patient fellow immigrant Soraya (Atossa Leoni) — but he’s still haunted by memories of Kabul. His distress is only enhanced when Rahim calls one day to say Amir should come home, since “there’s a way to be good again.” Amir goes, seeking redemption for a past the film illustrates in flashbacks to 1978, when he was a champion kite flyer.

In these scenes, set a year before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Amir lives a life of privilege but also some confusion, never quite pleasing his father and resenting his own best friend, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), the son of Baba’s longtime servant. Their class difference exacerbates Amir’s anxiety, as other children tease him about their friendship. It doesn’t help that Hassan is a superb kite runner: During kite-flying contests, he has an uncanny knack for scouting downed kites and retrieving them as emblems of Amir’s triumphs, further underlining Hassan’s agility, nobility and loyalty.

All of these qualities are put to the test when Hassan is raped by a trio of local bullies, who deride his ethnicity and underclass status. A witness to the assault, Amir runs away, afraid, rather than stand up for his friend. Although this pivotal scene garnered some sensational news coverage (after filming, the young actors moved away from Afghanistan out of fear for their safety), Hassan’s trauma is left disturbingly unrepresented. Instead, Amir’s guilt and resentment become the film’s emotional focus, with the servant boy remaining subordinate to his story.

When the Soviets invade, Baba and Amir escape to America. Baba — a successful businessman in Kabul — takes a job in a gas station to support his son’s education and ensure his professional success. But Hassan remains behind, an emblem of Amir’s lost innocence, homeland and capacity to “be good.” When Amir returns to Kabul as an adult, he seeks redemption by finding Hassan’s son, reportedly captured by the Taliban.

Like the source novel by Khaled Hosseini, Marc Forster’s film is frequently contrived and melodramatic. Yet it also focuses attention on the terrible consequences of war and tyranny. The film’s brutal villains — once someone’s children, their “colors” filled in or not — are stereotypical, at once homophobic and unhesitating to use homosexual rape as a weapon. But they’re aided by essentially decent bystanders, who do nothing in the face of even the most personal instances of cruelty and abuse.

Common Sense note: Parents need to know that although this often-harrowing drama set primarily in Afghanistan focuses on children’s experiences, the themes are mature. Families can talk about why part of the story is told as a flashback, from a child’s point of view. How does that change the impact of the story? Also, the young actors had to leave Afghanistan after making this film because of the homosexual rape scene. What do your children think about what it means to take risks for art?

Sexual content: Discussion of “giving” orphans to a local Taliban leader (for sexual reasons that are hinted at, but not discussed in any detail) in order to save the remaining children.

Language alert: Several instances of strong language, derogatory/racist references to the “hazara” (who are from the Black Mountain of Hazara region and are mostly Shi’a muslims).

Violence alert: Central plot element is a homosexual rape (both victim and perpetrator are adolescent boys), briefly indicated by close-ups of a belt being unbuckled, pants pulled down, and the victim’s face pressed against the ground. A bully threatens younger boys, a child uses a slingshot, and a boy throws pomegranates at his friend. War scenes include explosions, tanks and soldiers with guns. A hanged man is visible in the street, and children throw rocks at each other. The Taliban stone a woman and man to death (mostly shown in long shot, but blood is visible and it’s very clear what’s happening). Guns aimed at visitor. Fierce fistfight leaves participants bloodied and smashed. Hero appears with a black eye and swollen, bloody face.

Social behavior alert: A noble child sets an example for a more fearful boy. A single father is sometimes remote from his son, with high expectations. A childhood bully, Soviet troops and Taliban members are all cruel and visibly odious. Very little attention is paid to women’s lives under both traditional Afghani custom and extreme Taliban rule.

Alcohol/tobacco/drug alert: Frequent cigarette smoking, mostly by Amir’s father. Some drinking at parties and a bar; a child serves drinks to adults at a party.

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