Capernaum—In the opening scene, a doctor examines our protagonist Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) and pronounces him twelve years old. The malnourished Beirut urchin looks like he’s eight or nine, tops. He’s been sent to prison for stabbing someone, but when we see him brought into court at the beginning, he’s the plaintiff; he’s suing his parents, “because I was born.”
His case, which unfolds in flashback, shows him forced to work delivering groceries or selling “juice” (enriched with drugs) in the streets, and trying to help his beloved 11-year-old sister conceal her periods so that she won’t be given away to his boss in return for rent on their squalid flat. When things go really bad at home, Zain runs away, eventually falling in with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), a lovely young Ethiopian single mother working in Lebanon illegally. While Rahil works, Zain stays in her shanty and cares for her infant son Yonas, on whom a human trafficker has designs.
Things go bad again, and poor Zain is left lugging Yonas around on the streets, trying to find food for him. All the while, adults pass them, oblivious to their struggles. It seems shocking, but of course, in a more protected way, those people are most of us, every day.
Nadine Labaki’s neorealist drama is as appalling and exhausting as it sounds. It’s also a superb piece of moviemaking with a vivid, resourceful hero. The story has the rambling feel of a good novel, and Labaki gives us just enough humor and hope to keep us from fleeing the theater. But her polemic is unmistakable: All of the misery in the film is linked to poor people having children they aren’t in a position to properly care for. In some cases, like Rahil, these are loving parents; in others, like Zain’s folks, they’re selfish and foolish. The difference is enormous, of course, but in neither case is it enough to keep the kids safe.
The acting is uniformly terrific, and in particular Labaki’s work with the children—not just Zain and his siblings but also Yonas and a Syrian refugee girl who befriends them—is remarkable. It may lead you to reflect that, however much you may agree with Labaki’s tacit call to birth control in the abstract, we wouldn’t want the world to be without these beautiful kids.
Playing at Harkins Camelview.
Don’t Come Back From the Moon—More neglected youth in this adaptation of the Dean Bakapoulos novel Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon. Reset from Detroit to a shabby dying factory town on the edge of the Salton Sea,the movie follows Mickey (Jeffery Wahlberg), a teen who becomes the man of the house after his father (James Franco) abandons him, his brother Kolya (Zackary Arthur) and their mom (Rashida Jones, touchingly wan). Most of the dads in town have disappeared in this way; the local euphemism for it is “going to the moon.”
Mickey and his attractive friends drink and party and lose their virginity and generally run the coming-of-age playbook; meanwhile Mickey’s mom, initially devastated by her husband’s absence, hangs out her shingle as a hairstylist. There’s nothing very new about any of it, but the young cast is capable, the setting is interesting and beautifully shot, and director Bruce Thierry Cheung, working from a script he co-wrote with Bakapoulos, does generate a wistful atmosphere of economic and familial defeat, leavened with that requisite tinge of hope.
Glass—This is a sequel to two of M. Night Shyamalan’s films, 2000’s Unbreakable, and 2016’s Split. It’s a about a meeting, in a high-tech mental hospital, between Split’s multiple-personality maniac collectively called The Horde (James McAvoy) and Unbreakable’s modest superhero The Overseer (Bruce Willis) and his fragile-boned supervillian nemesis Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson). Supervising this summit is a shrink who specializes in comic-book delusions, played by Sarah Paulson at her most amusingly mannered.
Like so many of Shyamalan’s films, Glass is a misfire, an occasionally intriguing, more often maddening mess of good ideas and dumb ideas all played out at a leaden pace, with a disjointed, clumsy structure. It finally shows somelife in its homestretch, with a climactic clash between the three, but then that’s over, and the movie stubbornly dawdles on, refusing to end. I’ve sometimes felt sorry for Shyamalan, who structured a genuinely brilliant “twist” ending early in his career with 1999’s The Sixth Sense and has never been able to top it. You can sense that he’s straining to blow our minds here, but his revelations are overly conceptual, and unconvincing.
Even so, the acting of the three stars is excellent; Willis, with his low-key dignity, and Jackson with his ironic gravitas keep us from tuning out. It’s McAvoy, however, who keeps the audience giggling at his sinister antics and lighting shifts of character. He steals the picture, for whatever that may be worth.
In wide release.
Chandler International Film Festival—This weekend’s third annual shindig, featuring films from around the globe, is so packed that it spills over from the weekend, lasting through Monday, January 21. Feature selections range from the Jim Gaffigan comedy You Can Choose Your Family to the Chinese action picture Lost in Apocalypse to the surreal Swiss tale Katrina’s Dream to the South Africa-set family film Mia and the White Lion, among many others.
There are workshops and short programs of all sorts. Most of the screenings take place at the Flix Brewhouse Theatre; individual screening tickets range from $10-$20. Go to chandlerfilmfestival.com for details.