Early on in Davis Guggenheim's tender celebration of women's education activist Malala Yousafzai, we see the bright-eyed Pakistani teenager working her laptop in her family's new home in Birmingham, England. Fending off accusations of bossiness and "violence" from her younger brothers, the Muslim girl who stood up to the Taliban giggles as she dials up web photos of her crushes Brad Pitt, Roger Federer, and a hunky cricketer whose name I didn't catch.
It's a charming moment clearly meant to humanize an icon, and really, who needs a proven heroine to also be a saint? Guggenheim can be boosterish, which was a bit much in An Inconvenient Truth, where he lionized Al Gore, and way too much in Waiting for Superman, a shameless plug for the charter school movement. But his enthusiasm is easy to understand here. Ordinary is not in Yusufzai's DNA, nor is suburban England likely to contain a kid who got shot for speaking up for education for women and still wouldn't hold her tongue. So the immediate question is, what is it like for a teenager who already has a Nobel Peace prize under her belt to buckle down to studying for her GCSE exams? (Answer: exams are okay but the school uniform makes her nervous because "I'm not used to people seeing my legs.") And lurking right behind that question, what's the difference between people like Yousafzai, who raise their voices precisely when it might get them killed, and those who just jog along?
That's a big, complex question, but the short answer threaded through He Named Me Malala, which is based on a memoir written by Yousafzai with Christina Lamb, is that this preternaturally brave young woman, in a fairly traditional Muslim family that doesn't lack for a son, is a daddy's girl. A daddy's girl in a good way, that is, though perhaps less so for her mother, whose own education was cut short, and who remains a benign but shadowy presence barely in frame. Malala's father Ziauddin, an educator and an outspoken critic of the Taliban himself, beams with pride for the firstborn he named after the legend of a Pashtun woman warrior, Malalai of Marwand. Malalai's courage and charisma, which we see in beautifully hand-drawn animated sequences by Jason Carpenter, is said to have inspired an army of Afghan soldiers to defend their country from the British. She was murdered for her trouble, which makes her quite an act to follow, and Malala came close to sharing her fate.
Guggenheim deftly uses news footage and re-enactments to parse the odds against the inhabitants of Pakistan's Swat valley, a lush paradise intermittently reduced to rubble during fighting between government forces and the invading Taliban, who, he reports, ruled first by ingratiation and false promises, then by intimidation, and finally by terror, systematically picking off the schools for girls with incendiary bombs. All the more remarkable, then, that Malala and her father continued to speak their minds, and that she began writing an anonymous blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban until they ambushed her school bus, badly injuring two of her friends and almost killing her with a bullet to the brain.
Several surgeries later, Malala now goes about the Third World raising roofs on behalf of children, especially girls, without access to schooling. Though she clearly worships her father, she bristles at the suggestion that anyone but she chose her destiny. As a public speaker in just about any setting from the Nobel hall of ceremonies to a classroom full of saucer-eyed kids in Kenya, this girl, whose only visibly unusual feature is that one side of her face no longer moves, is transformed into a poised, articulate visionary with a common touch. Watching her in action, you understand why producers Walter Parks and Laurie Macdonald, who had planned to make a scripted biopic, met Malala, and decided that a documentary would be dandy.