The worst way to synopsize Capernaum, Lebanon's selection for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, would be to say it is about a kid who sues his parents. That would be like saying Slumdog Millionaire is about a poor teenager competing on a televised game show. It's technically true, but it undersells the film's value and in the case of Capernaum, emphasizes the only thing hokey and seemingly far-fetched about this moving drama.
We open with Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a Lebanese boy believed to be 12 but not having any proof of that, coming to court separate from his parents, . Zain has come from prison, where he's serving a five-year sentence for stabbing a man. What has led him to plaintiff status? The film jumps back into the recent past to show us.
One of too many children for us to count, Zain does not go to school. Instead, he works in a convenience store run by Assaad (Nour El Husseini), stocking shelves and making deliveries. Assaad, a man around 30 years of age, has his eyes on Sahar (Haita "Cedra" Izzam), Zain's slightly younger sister. Zain fears his parents, desperate and destitute, living in a place apparently owned by Assaad, are going to sell off his sister, the only friend he has. When he notices drops of blood on her bed, he takes efforts to hide the fact that she's having her first period.
Zain's fears are not misplaced. One day, he follows a costumed old man who claims to be Cockroach-Man, Spider-Man's cousin. Nearby the amusement park where Cockroach-Man works, Zain meets Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a young, hardworking Ethopian refugee. Having assumed someone else's identity, which she must maintain with a daily facial birthmark application, Rahil has been secretly providing for her infant son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). She agrees to let Zain watch her baby boy while she is at work and the two become like brothers as the preteen essentially turns into live-in childcare provider.
When Rahil disappears one day and doesn't come home, Zain struggles to provide for both him and this baby, who he passes off as his younger brother to others, fabricating reasons for the difference in their skintones. Having met a Syrian girl around his age in a similar situation, Zain starts dreaming of an exit from this bleak existence, where he sells a juice comprised of water and crushed-up pills of the painkiller Tramadol just to get by. Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh), Rahil's fake ID supplier, claims he can get the boy anywhere he wants just so long as he can have Rahil's baby. He needn't have two different color eyes to convey his sinister nature, but he does.
The third feature written and directed by Nadine Labaki, Capernaum has some DNA in common with Danny Boyle's aforementioned Oscar winner, showing us the struggles of poverty in a far-off place. But whereas Slumdog savored the joy amidst the hardship and rendered our hero's journey colorful and exciting, Labaki and her three fellow screenwriters keep this endeavor pretty dark and dour. The happiest things get are when Zain steals a skateboard and turns it into a makeshift stroller for young Yonas, for whom he develops a clear fondness.
The director does not paint a flattering portrait of her homeland, but that's exactly the point. Kids like Zain exist. We just don't think about them when we're catching up on Twitter and Facebook or going about our everyday lives. Zain is an insolent kid and he doesn't earn our sympathy very easily. Over time, seeing what he's going through, though, your heart can't help but break and agree with his own assertion that his incompetent parents should not be bringing any more children into this world.
Nabaki, who acted in three shorts and starred in a feature before making her behind-the-camera debut, is effective at conveying turmoil without manipulation or melodrama. Her foul-mouthed, pint-sized hero gives this film the edge it needs to win your heart without insulting your mind. It is not the transcendent piece of cinema that Slumdog is; very few films are. Nonetheless, it is an earnest, compassionate eye-opener that achieves its goals with good old-fashioned story and characters and not just its societal commentary on a distant, developing nation.
While Alfonso Cuarón's Roma seems poised to win out Foreign Language categories this season, look for Capernaum to receive a number of well-deserved nominations.