Some of international cinema’s most revealing, poignant, and provocative films about the lives of children star nonprofessional actors. With rawness and fragility, the young performers of Ken Loach’s Kes, the Dardenne brothers’ La Promesse, and Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City Of God reflect the often-dire circumstances in which kids are born, embodying the perseverance and tenacity it takes to grow up. Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi has been taking this approach his whole career, and he continues it with his latest, Sun Children, a tidal wave of compassion and empathy that crests into rage and sorrow—all of it provoked by the plight of Iran’s child laborers.
There are no official numbers on how many children are in this situation. Guesses vary widely: The 2011 Iranian census estimated that about 900,000 of those under the age of 18 aren’t in school and that 765,000 are working, while the pro-regime-change organization Iran Human Rights Monitor suggests it could be as many as 7 million. In Sun Children, these minors are presented as the children of absent, addicted, or refugee parents who are un- or underemployed. To fill their families’ financial gaps, the kids sell items on trains or buses, toil in tire factories or at other manual labor, or work illicitly for criminals—stealing, transporting drugs, spinning stories to police officers.
Sun Children opens with an attempted luxury-car heist that captures the yawning class difference in Iran’s capital city of Tehran. Twelve-year-old Ali (Rouhollah Zamani) and his three friends, Mamad (Mahdi Mousavi), Reza (Mani Ghafouri), and Abolfazl (Abolfazl Shirzad), sneak into a mall parking garage to steal hubcaps and tires. They get spotted and end up escaping through the back door of a grocery store; the shiny, clean, stylishly designed mall they flee into is worlds removed from the back of the tire factory where Ali sleeps, or the packed apartment building where Abolfazl lives with his sister, Zahra (Shamila Shirzad), and the rest of their family, all Afghan refugees. The boys can lose their pursuer here, but they can’t stay.
This underaged crew spends its days on these kinds of schemes, and Ali is well-known throughout the neighborhood—so much so that when local crime lord Hashem (Ali Nasirian) needs a unique job done, he turns to the tween. There is hidden treasure under the local Sun School, and if Ali and his friends enroll there as a front and dig it out, he’ll give them a cut and help Ali bring his institutionalized mother home. Zamani, whose greatest asset as a young actor is an utter lack of guile, takes in this offer with wide eyes and a set jaw. None of these boys has been in school for years, and they don’t spend time with other children aside from each other. But how hard could fitting in be?
When the boys arrive at the school, Sun Children becomes intentional—even uncomfortably sincere—about the difficulty Ali and his group face reintegrating into the kind of lives they should have. The film flirts with Dead Poets Society territory as the vice principal, Mr. Rafie (Javad Ezzati), takes notice of his new students and their separate qualities: Ali’s roughness, Abolfazl’s cleverness at math, Reza’s phenomenal soccer skills, Mamad’s gentleness. At the same time, the film incorporates scenes that express the pressure the philanthropically funded school is under, as Principal Mr. Amani (Ali Ghabeshi) frets about the rent and argues with meal suppliers who have raised their prices. Meanwhile, Majidi builds tension by repetitively contrasting the claustrophobic conditions of Ali’s tunnel digging with the sunny recesses other children enjoy outside, cutting between tight shots of a pickaxe swinging and wider birds’ eye views of the school’s courtyard. Certain images, of locked doors or notebooks, take on increased relevance through repetition, Majidi emphasizing the line between the opportunities the kids are given and the ones they’re denied.
Sun Children transforms from scene to scene, sometimes evoking the tight friendships and adventurous antics of The Goonies, sometimes the foreboding atmosphere of Pan’s Labyrinth, sometimes even the demoralizing bureaucratic details of season four of HBO’s The Wire. The through line is a search for the dignity in the inner lives of kids—the modus operandi of a filmmaker who’s long walked the knife’s edge of childhood hope and despair, in films like The Color Of Paradise and Children Of Heaven, the first Iranian movie to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The problem explored here is not uniquely Iranian, of course. The omnipresence of global poverty means that such exploitations happen on every continent (save, of course, the one without many people, Antarctica). But the drama is rooted in Iran’s economic realities and social hardships, and Majidi refuses the indulgence of inauthentic happiness. The result is a movie whose bittersweet moments of joy, ephemeral as they may be, are purposefully tied to camaraderie between these children and the adults who attempt, and fail, to protect them.
Even the idyllic moments are colored by the lurking threat of people who see Ali and his peers as tools for their own self-betterment. Majidi doesn’t paint every grownup as predatory—Ezzati is a particular standout as the principled Mr. Rafie. But as the children run into police, get jerked around by Hashem, and are misunderstood by certain teachers, Sun Children argues that a society so unequal and so focused on individual survival is bound to be complicit, even corrupt. It’s a theme that comes up again and again in Iranian cinema, including in Mohammad Rasoulof’s recent Berlin top-prize winner, There Is No Evil. And Majidi hammers it home here, painting a portrait of childhood, and by extension of a country, in crisis.