Director Marc Forster's exceedingly respectful adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's international best seller ''The Kite Runner
'' has both a subtle, captivating naturalism and some convenient plot turns that are difficult to overcome.
Screenwriter David Benioff (''The 25th Hour
'') remained largely faithful to Hosseini's story about the friendship between two boys in Afghanistan just before the 1979 Soviet invasion, and the way one's betrayal of the other haunts him for decades to come.
When Forster focuses on the kids, wealthy Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi) and the family servant's feisty son Hassan (the irresistible Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), ''The Kite Runner'' is light, sweet, charming. The boys' obsession with kites and American movies like ''The Magnificent Seven
'' and ''Bullitt
'' is funny and believable, and the young actors playing them seem surprisingly comfortable, considering these are their first screen roles.
But the film, shot mainly on location in Western China, also darkens plausibly with danger lurking around every corner. For the most part, Forster - whose eclectic filmography runs from ''Monster's Ball
'' to ''Stranger Than Fiction
'' - shows great restraint during moments that could have been heavily melodramatic.
The rape of little Hassan by a group of bullies in a Kabul marketplace alley, which Amir secretly witnesses and fearfully does nothing about, is a prime example. Working with his longtime cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, Forster handles this harrowing moment delicately, which makes it more significant for the viewer. Similarly, he depicts a death of a major character later on with quiet and grace.
Once the story follows Amir as an adult (Khalid Abdalla), living as an aspiring writer in San Francisco with his ailing father (the formidable Homayoun Ershadi), the tone turns draggier - which is understandable and necessary, given that Amir remains wracked with shame for his childhood transgression, but that also means it loses its earlier energy. (Forster and Benioff do inject some much-needed humor as Amir meets and awkwardly courts the woman who will become his wife, played by Atossa Leoni.)
And once Amir returns to the ravaged, Taliban-controlled Kabul he no longer recognizes for the chance to right his wrong, moments that should have been more poignant are instead distracting for their convenience. Old foes show up at just the right time, and sequences that played out at the beginning are echoed at the end. It's a jarring contrast for a film that's so clearly aiming for emotional and political realism.
If nothing else, though, ''The Kite Runner'' does succeed in providing a vibrant window into a region of the world we might not have known and might have felt daunted to seek out. In this era of 24-hour cable news, celebrity gossip and blink-and-you-miss-them headlines, that's probably the greatest service the film could provide.
''The Kite Runner,'' a Paramount Classics and DreamWorks Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for strong thematic material including the rape of a child, violence and brief strong language. In English and Dari with English subtitles. Running time: 122 minutes. Two and a half stars out four.
By CHRISTY LEMIRE AP Movie Critic
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