Amir (young Zekeria Ebrahimi) and his servant's son Hassan (Ahmad Kahn Mahmidzada) are two close friends in Afghanistan, navigating the threats of bullies, parental disapproval, and ethnic differences. Amir is a sophisticated boy with a wild imagination and Hassan is his poor, uneducated loyal companion, devoted to a fault. When Amir witnesses the sexual assault of Hassan by older boys, his guilt forces him to reject his friend, and when Amir's family flees to America during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, he locks his guilt deep within his heart. Now older and a published author, Amir (Khalid Abdalla, "United 93") is notified he must return to a now Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to retrieve a child of utmost importance.
It's to director Marc Forster's credit that he can continue to leap from genre to genre without being pinned down ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland," "Stay"); however, "Runner" is the filmmaker's follow-up to last year's oddly bent "Stranger than Fiction" (a cold fish movie if there ever was one) and it's comforting to see "Runner" pulled off with a certain emotional panache. I was ready and willing to write Forster off as limber but ineffective storyteller, more cautious with his career path than the scripts he's placed in care of, but "Kite Runner" restores plenty of faith in the director.
Hosseini's wildly popular book is a complex narrative to wrestle to the screen, encompassing epic reaches of politics and personal drama, while also, at its core, an intimate tale of soul corrosion and the desire to patch up a wounded conscience. Screenwriter David Benioff eschews most of the visual fireworks to concentrate on the ties that bind.
Strong, endearing portrayals of friendship and parenting are the focal points here, creating an unforgettable network of characters who each fight their own battles of faith and devotion while pushing away the encroaching threat of the real world and stock iron-jawed depictions of traditional Middle East characterizations. It's to Benioff and Forster's credit that these people never drift into hateful cartoons; instead they lead very compassionate lives with complicated choices often leading to identifiable heartbreak.
That's not to say "Runner" is a progressive downer. In fact, much of the film is light on its toes, viewing the boys at play in kite flying competitions, and the elder Amir's dalliances with relationships. Certainly "Runner" contains shocking moments of humiliation and violence, especially near the conclusion, but Forster seems determined to pace his film swiftly, with great amounts of warmth to keep the viewer on steady ground with the business of tragic Afghan horror that rears up at particularly cutting moments. The effort is boosted by the cast, especially the young leads Ebrahimi and Mahmidzada, who deliver outstanding, natural performances without any reveal of coaching. Frankly, it's almost a shame when the film moves on from them.
In the final act, when Amir travels to Kabul on his mission, "Runner" slips away from Forster's control, and the effortlessness of the adaptation is eroded with some unsettling gaps in storytelling, and a finale that, while being faithful to the book, feels artificial on the screen. While it tarnishes the value of the movie, it doesn't implode the experience. "Kite Runner" remains an effective, deeply felt meditation on forgiveness, and when it stays near the characters, it's some of the best filmmaking Marc Forster has ever accomplished.