In “The White Balloon,” the predicament of an endearing little girl who loses a large-denomination banknote en route to make a special holiday purchase is played out, in real time, during the countdown to New Year’s Day in Iran. By turns suspenseful and amusing, deceptively slight tale is a charmer with lots of local color. Fests, particularly those on the lookout for kiddie fare, should take notice. And cash-strapped helmers everywhere can take a lesson from debut helmer Jafar Panahi, who — with a boost from scripter Abbas Kiarostami — parlays careful casting and the most basic raw ingredients into a modest slice of life with near-universal appeal.
Seven-year-old Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani) covets a plump, multifinned goldfish she spotted in the market, but her put-upon mother sees no reason for such an extravagant purchase when less flamboyant goldfish are available for free in their courtyard’s decorative pool.
Razieh enlists her brother (who abhors wasting “the price of two movies” on a dumb fish) to convince Mom, who finally relinquishes her very last bill, expecting plenty of change for essential household expenses. Alone and determined, wide-eyed Razieh sets out toward the market, clutching the banknote, but is waylaid by a snake charmer who effortlessly appropriates her funds. Distraught moppet’s spooky experience is an instructional close call in exploring forbidden territory; you can practically hear her little heart pounding in dismay as she learns for herself why her parents have warned her to steer clear of the unsavory spot.
Razieh recovers her cash, only to lose it again before reaching the pet shop. There she is befriended by an elderly woman whohelps her retrace her steps. The all-important bill is out of reach beneath the curbside cellar grate of a closed shop.
As vendors and merchants wrap up business before the long holiday begins, the vicinity of the grate is the site of entertaining digressions involving an indignant tailor, a friendly soldier on leave far from home, an Afghan refugee selling balloons and Razieh’s resourceful brother. Will they devise a way to retrieve the money in time?
Veteran helmer Kiarostami, who took on newcomer Panahi as first assistant on his “Through the Olive Trees,” structured Panahi’s original story for the screen , although Kiarostami does not, as a rule, write the screenplays for his own films.
Narrative comes close to wearing thin in a few spots, but, overall, Panahi is a keen enough observer of human behavior to keep viewers rooting for the pint-sized protagonist and her vital, minimalist mission.
Tyke is adorable and all supporting roles ring true. Lensing, particularly long opening shot through lively populated streets, conveys an unmistakable sense of place. Bittersweet ending strikes the right tone.