Dir: Marc Forster. US. 2007. 122mins.
Better at exploring the bonds of family and friendship than at articulating the societal traumas that have haunted Afghanistan over the last three decades, The Kite Runner leaps from the page to the screen full of emotion and sensitive characterization. The source material's inherently melodramatic elements are mostly well-handled by director Marc Forster, but a problematic third act keeps this film from flying as high as it would like.

Paramount Classics and DreamWorks will be facing an interesting set of promising and discouraging commercial factors when the film opens in the US on Dec 14. The Kite Runner is based on a 2003 novel, written by first-time Afghan author Khaled Hosseini, which enjoyed widespread critical and commercial success. But one of the novel's main strengths - its complete immersion into Afghan daily life - may not easily translate to the US marketplace, which may resist the film's prominent subtitles and lack of recognizable stars. Nonetheless, Forster has an award-season pedigree with dramas like Finding Neverland and Monster's Ball, and positive reviews should also help the movie find some traction among highbrow audiences.

The largest unknown at the moment, though, is the controversy that provoked the recent decision to push back the film's release six weeks out of concern for the Afghan child actors. Fearful that negative reaction in Afghanistan to The Kite Runner's sexual content could put these children in danger, Paramount agreed to delay the film in order for the children to complete their school term and then leave the country. While the resulting attention-grabbing headlines have no doubt helped build awareness for the film, it's uncertain whether they may also create a backlash among those who feel that these young people were exploited by a major Hollywood studio.

Internationally, where the film will open in December and then expand through the spring of next year, The Kite Runner will probably confront the same conflicting box- office factors. Since the movie's themes of redemption and honour are universal, though, the lack of star power should not prove fatal with overseas audiences.

As the film opens, Afghan writer Amir (Abdalla) receives a call at his Northern California apartment, summoning him to return to his homeland. In flashbacks, we see a young Amir (Ebrahimi) in the late '70s living in Kabul with his noble father Baba (Ershadi) and best friend Hassan (Khan Mahmoodzada), the son of a servant who works for Amir's family. When some bullies brutalize the ineffectual Hassan in a most humiliating way, with Amir watching on in secret, it drives an unbreakable wedge between the two boys.

When the Russians invade Afghanistan, Baba flees with his son and escapes to America. While Baba works as a gas station attendant in the US, Amir tries his hand at writing and falls in love with a beautiful fellow Afghan named Soraya (Leoni). Soon, they are married and Amir is enjoying the fruits of his creative labours as his first novel is set to be published. But before he can move forward with his life, he must return to Kabul to make amends for a past shame.

With its tale of betrayed friendship, dark family secrets, childhood suffering, jubilant weddings, and anguished funerals, The Kite Runner is the sort of tear-jerking melodrama that, in the wrong hands, can quickly become intolerable as it trots out the next in its series of emotionally manipulative plot twists. Thankfully, Marc Forster, as he showed with Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland, can guide potentially mawkish material toward moments of genuine feeling by emphasizing restrained performances and lifelike situations.

For most of its running time, The Kite Runner follows in those films' footsteps, establishing a sophisticated tone for the story's extended flashback to Amir's childhood. Ebrahimi and Mahmoodzada, neither of whom has acted before, are terrific as the young boys, demonstrating noticeable chemistry while at the same time believably playing friends separated by social and ethnic status. (Amir is part of Afghanistan's Pashtun majority while Hassan is a Hazara, a minority people discriminated against because of their 'flat-nosed' features.)

Similarly, Abdalla as the adult Amir shows considerable range, fluctuating between the awkward young man early on trying to win Soraya's favor to the more confident and mature man who returns to Kabul at the film's conclusion. But The Kite Runner's strongest performance comes from Ershadi, who plays Baba with such simple decency that he becomes a towering patriarchal figure akin to Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird. Of course, the character's moral certainty makes his demeaning American gas station job all the more poignant - not to mention the revelation that comes out about his past transgressions.

The Kite Runner's personal relationships are so nicely observed, especially as these characters immigrate to America and confront a totally alien culture, that it's depressing how badly the film missteps as it heads toward its conclusion. Until the third act, Forster and his screenwriter, David Benioff, plot a relatively subtle course, sprinkling light comedy into the proceedings so that the drama never becomes too severe. However, Amir's mysterious call from home tilts the film in an awkward direction as The Kite Runner unconvincingly morphs into an action-thriller in the last half-hour.

Thrusting Amir back into Afghanistan (which has been devastated by the Russians, civil war and the Taliban since his departure 20 years ago), Forster attempts to make political commentary about the current state of this Middle Eastern nation, but after author Khaled Hosseini's impassioned insights in his novel, the film's similar stabs seem hopelessly perfunctory and uninspired.

Furthermore, Forster's lightly melodramatic style isn't well-suited for the later scenes' brutal violence and dangerous chases through the streets of a destroyed Kabul. As a book, The Kite Runner succeeded by wedding a universal coming-of-age story to a geographically specific examination of one of the planet's most volatile regions. The film retains the novel's universal elements, but some of the political specifics get lost in translation.

Production companies/backers
ParamountVantage (US)
DreamWorks Pictures (US)
Sidney Kimmel Entertainment (US)
Participant Productions (US)

US distribution
Paramount Vantage

International distribution
DreamWorks Pictures

Executive producers
Sidney Kimmel
Laurie MacDonald
Sam Mendes
Jeff Skoll

Co-executive producer
Bruce Toll

William Horberg
Walter Parkes
Rebecca Yeldham
E Bennett Walsh

Screen play
David Benioff
based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini

Roberto Schaefer

Production design
Carlos Conti

Matt Chesse

Alberto Iglesias

Main cast
Khalid Abdalla
Homayoun Ershadi
Shaun Toub
Zekiria Ebrahimi
Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada
Atossa Leoni