During a key sequence in Abouna, an assured and touching portrait of African childhood, two brothers take a break from searching for their absentee father by holing up at the movies. The first shot has the younger of the two bolting upright in his chair: The man they're looking for is right up there on the screen, recognizable from the back. When the man turns around, faces the camera, and embraces children rushing into his arms, it should be clear to the boy that the actor is not their father, but they're more than anxious to harbor the illusion. The next morning, they sneak back into the theater and come out with a reel of film.
At once fanciful and poignant, the melancholy magic in the movie-within-a-movie goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of Abouna, which has a prevailing gentleness that undercuts the heavy tone. The title, meaning "our father," is a clever misnomer, since the father appears only in the opening shots, scurrying off through the desert to some unknown destination. But his absence is in itself a powerful presence: Every mistake the boys make, every unfortunate tributary their lives travel down, owes something to him, because his abandonment sets off a chain of events that Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Bye Bye Africa) documents with simple, inescapable logic.
Living in a small, desperately poor village in Chad, 15-year-old Ahidjo Mahamet Moussa and his asthmatic 8-year-old brother Hamza Moctar Aguid wake up to discover that their father has mysteriously disappeared. They spend their days trying to find him, skipping school to hang out by the Chad-Cameroon border and poke around the rest of the town. Already a handful for their overburdened mother (Zara Haroun), the boys are shipped off to a strict Koranic school for discipline after the police catch them stealing the film reels. Once there, Moussa and Aguid regularly flee from camp in search of their father, but when they're inevitably captured, the school's headmaster beats them mercilessly.
Briskly paced by African standards (which roughly translates into "a little deliberate" to Western audiences), Abouna starkly defines the masculine and feminine influence in raising children, and what happens when they're not so complementary. At 81 minutes, the film could actually stand to be longer, because Haroun suddenly introduces so many last-minute plot turns that there's no time to process them all. The ending, especially, sticks a bow on top of a story that's too misshapen to fit the packaging, with no fewer than three major developments piling up in the closing reel. But Haroun's impulse to smooth things over at least comes from the same empathy and generosity that suffuses the rest of the film, which remains doggedly optimistic to the last.