The idea behind “Girl Rising’’ is strikingly simple and even more strikingly imaginative. The documentary, which aims to illuminate the plight of girls in the developing world, has nine girls reenact actual incidents from their lives to illustrate aspects of that plight. The aspects include child labor, little or no access to education, sexual abuse, poverty, arranged marriage, and so on. Each vignette has a voice-over written by a woman writer from the girl’s country. Some of the writers are quite well known, such as Edwidge Danticat, for Haiti, and Marie Arana, for Peru. The voice-overs feature an amazing array of vocal talent, including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Alicia Keys (if she ever decides to give up music, she has a real future in acting), Kerry Washington, Salma Hayek, and Cate Blanchett.
The one male voice belongs to Liam Neeson, who provides an overall narration. It largely consists of statistics, nearly all depressing. For example, 50 percent of sexual assaults in the world are on females under 15; there are 33 million fewer girls than boys attending primary schools. The numbers are startling — yet also not surprising. The statistics come in linking segments between the vignettes. The segments show girls of various ages and races holding up placards in a sunny field.
Richard E. Robbins, the director, has given “Girl Rising’’ a great look — or, rather, looks. There’s no way the film is going to risk its nine young heroines (and some of them truly are heroic) blending together in the viewer’s mind. All the segments shot on location. One in Cairo is largely animated (in a very “Persepolis’’ style). Bits of superimposed animation appear in an episode set in Calcutta. Another, in a Peruvian mining town, is shot in black and white. Paul G. Allen, the Microsoft cofounder, is one of the film’s executive producers, and “Girl Rising’’ isn’t a low-budget enterprise.
The artfulness of the shooting can become a bit of a distraction, as can some instances of overwriting. The situation of an Afghan child bride doesn’t exactly need verbal hyping. Far more problematic are the reenactments. There’s actually some merit to the idea of someone reenacting events from her own life, especially when they’re as skillfully done as here. But once the camera starts to shake during a Haitian segment, and the 2010 Haitian earthquake is (sort of) reenacted, the effect is at once lame and prepossessing.
The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier once noted that in “Schindler’s List’’ Steven Spielberg managed to film just about the only Holocaust story with a happy ending. It will come as a relief, though not a shock, that none of the nine vignettes ends badly for its protagonist. Wanting to get across its message — and attract an audience to get that message across to — “Girl Rising’’ needs to walk a fine line between the grim (Neeson’s statistics) and upbeat (the individual girls’ triumphs).
The combination of beautiful look and repeated happy endings makes “Girl Rising’’ seem less like a call to arms than an occasion for self-congratulation. The documentary is so well intentioned you want to give it a hug. The price of good intentions is that it looks and feels like an extended public-service announcement for goodness. Up to a point, that’s OK. Goodness is a good, good product. But past that point even the noblest product becomes just that, a product. Good intentions can pave the road to a destination worse even than hell: irrelevance.