Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala opens with an animated sequence that reveals that Malala Yousafzai was named after Afghan folk heroine Malalai. Did Malala’s father have a premonition that his daughter would become the youngest Nobel laureate before she turned 20? Did he work assiduously to effect this remarkable turn of events? The documentary flirts with these questions but then abandons its pursuit.

In Guggenheim’s 88-minute film, Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s father, mentor and firmest supporter, emerges as a fascinating but underdeveloped character. It’s a halfway house between the observational and the reverential, with cutesy moments with the Yousafzai family mixed with awe at the ease with which Malala addresses world leaders and handles the media. In its weakest moments, He Named Me Malala feels like a campaign tool for the activist’s foundation and for the larger cause of women's education. The film is an incomplete picture of a work in progress, but the teenager’s confidence, maturity, wisdom, and talismanic status in the world of global activism are undeniable even in the most uncritical moments.

Malala’s eventful life thus far proves that reality is far more interesting than fiction. She had her first encounter with fame when she was 11. Malala started blogging under a pseudonym about the Taliban’s rising influence in her hometown Mingora, in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, for BBC Urdu’s website. When the Taliban began shutting down girls’ schools in the region, Yousafzai, egged on by her father, boldly outed herself and appeared in a New York Times documentary about the Taliban’s rampage in the valley. On October 9, 2012, a Taliban gunman shot her in the head. She was 15.

Malala survived, was taken to the United Kingdom for advanced treatment, and, despite being paralysed on one side her face and having lost her hearing in one ear, has emerged as a Joan of Arc-like figure. Apart from winning the Nobel Peace Prize along with Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi in 2014, she has co-authored the best-selling memoir I Am Malala, has set up a foundation, and has hung out with Barack Obama and the Queen of England. Malala travelled to Nairobi to meet some of the parents of the 276 girls who were kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram in 2014, and has comforted Syrians fleeing civil war. She hasn’t yet been on a date, she tells Guggenheim, who has previously directed An Inconvenient Truth, about American politician Al Gore’s efforts to raise awareness on climate change, and Waiting for ‘Superman’, about the flaws in the American public school system.

Public speaking is a family tradition

The documentary makes it clear that the Yousafzai family has always encouraged its members to develop their oratory skills. Malala’s grandfather was a powerful preacher, and his stirring speeches encouraged Ziauddin to overcome his stutter and emerge as a prominent education activist in Swat Valley. Ziauddin’s role in encouraging Malala to broaden her world through education is unmistakable, and the father-daughter bond, although fleetingly touched upon, emerges as one of the most important factors in Malala’s rise.

Guggenheim doesn’t focus on the minor industry that has grown around Malala in recent years, but he does ask other questions. We learn that Malala is a huge fan of Roger Federer, Shahid Afridi and Shane Watson. Guggenheim also asks Malala if she was made by her father, and the Dalai Lama-like calm with which she answers the question is the film’s most revealing moment, though unwittingly. Like most global celebrities, Malala is at once gregarious and inscrutable, a globe-trotter who is hard to pin down. She has lived the last few years in full public glare, and her ability to absorb all the changes in her life and be the poster girl for education, women's rights, and tolerance that the world badly needs is the subject of another less unfocused and eager-to-please documentary.