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‘Yasmeen’s Element’ Review: A Spirited Day in the Life of One Pakistani Schoolgirl

“Yasmeen’s Element” opens with a quote about education from Malala Yousafzai. It’s a smart move, immediately bringing the topic to the forefront of the viewing experience while invoking one of the most famous advocates of girls’ education, one who hails from co-writer and Pakistani-American director Amman Abbasi’s country of origin. But the film, an enthralling escapade centered on the title character and co-written by Jeffrey E. Stern and Sana Jafri, doesn’t need it

Eshal Fatima stars as Yasmeen, a 12-year-old student in a North Pakistan village who delights in going to school and spending time with her classmates. One day, the teacher dismisses students early after speaking with soldiers outside the school, assigning everyone one element from the periodic table to present on the next day. In the rush of post-school giggles and games with her friends, Yasmeen loses her element, and sets off on an adventure through the valley to track down her professor and complete the homework.

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Yasmeen’s journey gives her a different kind of education. Outside familiar surroundings, her academic brilliance is tested in the form of street smarts. Nothing gets too dangerous — the film can easily be enjoyed by children — but she meets figures who try to sabotage and derail her quest, as well as those who impart wisdom and kindness. It feels no less urgent than “Percy Jackson” or any fantastical odyssey, but the road is populated with the day-to-day minutiae of life in the remote region.

“Yasmeen’s Element” is so simple — maybe even too simple — yet transfixing as it unfolds. One can’t help but see the world through Yasmeen’s eyes, like Brooklynn Prince’s Moonee in “The Florida Project.” It works only in the film’s favor that Fatima isn’t a professional actress (nor are her classmates, including Abeera Rubab as best friend Nadia). She moves through her environment as only one unaccustomed to cameras can. You could say she’s a natural, but that also suggests that she’s putting on an act and not bringing the true lack of artifice that professional actors simply don’t have. At times, Yasmeen appears younger than her age, like when she and the others find games to play with rocks and bottles on the side of the road; at others, she speaks to adults like not only an equal but an authority, unsettling them as they underestimate her.

Abbasi shot the film with one camera (sharing cinematographer duty with Ujjal Bastakoti), using luxuriously long takes and wide shots to capture the magnificent, mountainous setting. Coverage is used judiciously and only during scenes involving dialogue, but still minimally, requiring Fatima and her co-stars to immerse themselves in village life and inviting viewers to do the same.

It’s the cinematography of a truncated schedule and spare crew that also gives the film a uniform style and sense of motion as Yasmeen moves from one location to another and day into night. It also reiterates her size and age; a small figure in a big world, with much to see and learn. She starts with her older brother, who works full time, meets the suspicious characters known as “Smoker” and “Joker,” gets a lecture from an uncle who advises her to do vocational training, and crosses paths with two women who work in medicine. And while they don’t outright stand in her way, their assistance is subtle, relying on Yasmeen’s instincts as much as the kindness of strangers.

At 73 minutes, “Yasmeen’s Element” is more of an extended short than a feature, enveloping the viewer for the entirety of its running time without weighing down the story (it’s notably shorter than some TV episodes). The film was initially conceived as an adaptation of “The Last Thousand” by co-screenwriter Jeffrey E. Stern, about a co-educational school near Kabul, but shifted direction when the Taliban reestablished control in Afghanistan after U.S. forces left. What remains of that idea doesn’t wear its themes on its sleeve but instead advocates for girls’ rights and access to education in depicting the joy it brings Yasmeen and her classmates — and the daunting reality outside it.

Grade: B+

“Yasmeen’s Element” premiered at SXSW 2024. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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