In Nadine Labaki’s searing new film, a righteously angry young boy, having lived in the slums of Beirut, is in a courtroom where he says matter-of-factly that he is suing his parents for having been born. After the judge asks him why he wants to do this, the film deftly moves back in time to the conditions that Zain was experiencing in while still living with his parents.
Here, in the overcrowded and filthy ‘flat’, the only family activity, apart from arguments, is creating homemade tramadol shots, a way to make money as Zain’s jailed brother is able to sell them in prison. Further into the film the courtroom is revisited a few times after key events that relate to the trial, and create an interesting framework for the film. The courtroom is certainly though not the focus of the film and in that regard, some may find the synopsis to be a little misleading. However, once Zain’s story is told, one can understand all too well why he would want to do this.
After he runs away from his parents, Zain wanders the streets trying to find work, and along his way he meets a young Ethiopian woman in Rahil, who is also struggling in many ways, mirroring Zain’s suffering through severity rather than situational context. She takes Zain in, where for the first time he is shown affection. Rahil hesitantly allows Zain to watch over her child while at work, and he does his best to look after the infant who he sees as a new sister, caring for the infant in an attempt to avoid becoming like his father.
The little boy (in reality actually an infant girl) steals many scenes in very fluid and obviously improvised/unedited scenes. His care of young Yonas is incredible given Zain is so numb to reality, but he is wiser than his age would suggest. He does his best, involving hustling on the streets, while in one telling scene he watches a cartoon with Yonas but improvises the dialogue with vulgar language changes, a sure sign that at such a young age he is numb to reality and is wise to such adult language.
Backed by improvised handheld camerawork and an appropriately grim and subtle soundtrack, this is a strong depiction of the lives lived by tens of millions of children in slums around the world. Zain’s unique story unfolds in the streets of Beirut without the use of extras, but most importantly the lead child actor playing Zain himself lived a similar life to the one he lives on screen, providing another layer of truth. This lack of extras lends a thriving background of the Beirut markets to the film, adding another incredibly natural and realistic quality that adds intense power to the plentiful gut punches landed throughout as Zain runs from one terrible situation to the next.
The films is covered in the dust and grime from the Beirut streets, where the film is almost too bleak at times, especially during the spine-chilling scenes in which the family fights are near-unbelievable in their intensity. There are however reprieves from the depression in some scenes, one where Zain meets an elderly gentleman who wears a spiderman looking suit but calls himself ‘Cockroach Man’ instead. For the most part though, this is neorealism at its best.