There’s no question that Malala Yousafzai has led a remarkable life. The idea of exploring the life of this young woman through film is understandable, and worthy of consideration. Unfortunately, He Named Me Malala is less of an insightful look into Yousafzai’s life and more of a puff piece on a subject who deserves more.
Yousafzai’s life, even at the age of 18, has included more noteworthy events than most humans will face. In her early teens, she was a critic of the Taliban and a champion for education rights. After barely surviving an assassination attempt, her profile escalated dramatically worldwide, and she’s now the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize ever. Part of what’s made her click for audiences, though, is that she has a tremendous presence. She’s clearly intelligent and well-versed on the issues that are important to her, but as the film demonstrates, she’s also a teenage girl who has her share of awkward moments. She’s shown struggling with her homework, teasing her brothers, and reluctantly talking about her crushes on sports stars. Little behind-the-scenes moments, like one where she shows off her autographed copy of her own memoir, I Am Malala, are the best part of He Named Me Malala.
While these moments are intriguing, though, they also raise questions. Namely: what’s it like for someone who’s clearly figuring themselves out to be placed on such a high pedestal? And how does a person who spends so much time promoting education balance that with finding ways to fit into her own school? How about the reconciliation between Yousafzai’s prominence as a feminist figure and her relationship with her conservative mother? These questions are raised, but not really answered by the film.
To a degree, that’s understandable; Yousafzai is shown as shy when it comes to talking about herself, regardless of how outspoken she is on the issue that’s foisted her into the public eye. But director Davis Guggenheim is more than fine letting these questions go unanswered, choosing instead to gloss over these questions and instead illustrating Yousafzai as an icon. Given how much information there is already out there about Yousafzai, it ultimately renders the film as worth viewing only for those who don’t actually know anything at all about Yousafzai.