Watching Iranian director Majid Majidi’s “Sun Children,” I was reminded of “The Florida Project.” One of the best films about children of the 21st century, “The Florida Project” takes place within a stone’s throw of Walt Disney World, where it seems a dream too much for its neglected kid characters to visit until, in the film’s last scene, they enter the park. “Sun Children” presents this scenario in reverse. It opens with two boys, 12-year-old Ali (Rouhollah Zamani) and young Afghan friend/accomplice Abolfazl (Abolfazl Shirzad), running through the poshest place they can think of: a Tehran shopping mall where they’ve been stealing tires from the luxury cars in the parking garage.
Majidi, as some may recall, directed one of the best films about children of the 20th century: “Children of Heaven,” about a boy who loses his sister’s shoes and the trouble that causes for them both. Few films can rival that one for sheer simplicity, and yet audiences can hardly look away because they connect so directly to the children’s situation from scene to scene. In “Sun Children,” the plot is considerably more complicated but still quite relatable, as Majidi stays focused on a small group of youngsters whose challenges, while minor, loom large as mountains in their minds.
Even before that semi-enchanted shopping mall scene, in which the kids marvel at a kind of opulence inaccessible to them, the movie announces a dedication “to 152 million children forced into child labor and all those who fight for their rights.” So right off the bat, we know the director wants to make a political statement. His principal cast had all been child laborers themselves and could thus draw from the experience to play Iranian and immigrant kids forced to work in order to help provide for their families.
When Ali isn’t stealing tires, he’s typically running some kind of scam for Heshem (Ali Nasirian), a neighborhood crime boss. Ali’s a tough kid, like one of the teenage gangsters in Luis Buñuel’s landmark “Los Olvidados,” an early Mexico-set example of the earnest, morality-driven neorealism to which Majidi has dedicated his entire career. “Sun Children” is more polished than the director’s early work, and yet, a certain scrappiness remains, shot largely on location, with a mix of experienced but unmannered adults and nonprofessional child actors.
Nearly all of “Sun Children” takes place at — or in the tunnels below (re-created on stages) — a local community organization called the Sun School, made up of volunteers determined to educating the street kids and child laborers ignored by Iran’s public education system. These are the ones “who fight for their rights,” embodied by an impressive character named Mr. Rafie (Javad Ezzati) who would be right at home in an American inspirational-teacher story, à la “Stand and Deliver” or “Lean on Me.”
Rafie’s tough and relatively streetwise himself, a bull-in-a-china-shop kind of life coach with a soft spot for underdogs. When Ali and his three young friends show up at the Sun School begging the principal (Ali Ghabeshi) to enroll them, it is Rafie who earnestly asks the administrator to make an exception on their behalf. “What’s the difference between us?! Aren’t we all equals?” Ali howls in the school’s courtyard, and watching from a window, the man is touched by the boy’s determination to learn.
What Rafie doesn’t realize is something Majidi has already revealed to the audience: Ali isn’t really seeking an education. His enrollment is a cover story for Heshem’s latest scheme. In addition to having the neighborhood drug trade cornered, this Artful Dodger-like godfather trains homing pigeons in his spare time — a metaphor for the way Heshem “feeds” the kids, keeping them loyal to him through illicit tasks. He tells Ali a tale of buried treasure that can only be reached via water tunnels that run back to the school, instructing Ali and his friends to sign up for classes so they might gain access to these aqueducts. Sure enough, once accepted, they set about executing their heist, sneaking down to the basement between classes to tunnel away, like pint-size versions of the small-time crooks in movies like “Lucky Luke” and “The Ladykillers.”
Majidi has never been one for complicated plotting, and so audiences will likely be a few steps ahead of these gullible kids, wincing as they risk expulsion, arrest and even their lives to retrieve a treasure that may exist only in their imaginations. Still, the movie packs some nice surprises, including scenes in which the director dramatizes other unexpected obstacles that impact an organization like the Sun School. In one, the teachers show up one day to find themselves locked out. They are eight months behind on rent, but rather than let the setback impede their cause, the principal orders the kids to climb the fences. “Sun Children” shows the kids tossing their backpacks over the walls, and then, in a powerful moment one can hardly imagine witnessing in an American movie (where the risk of injury and lawsuits would loom), they swarm the walls, determined to be educated.
Observing this, we sense there’s a fragility to such well-meaning institutions as the Sun School. At times, we can picture a more conventional version of this story, in which Rafie gets through to Ali — whose tunneling exploits actively endanger the organization — inspiring him to donate the “treasure” to the school and thereby saving it from financial ruin. But Majidi’s movie is more realistic than that, as reflected via both individual performances (as Ali, Zamani is entirely convincing as the sort of wild stallion he plays) and energetic group scenes.
If one intention of “Sun Children” is to remind that all kids are created equal, deserving of education and encouragement, Majidi’s young ensemble makes the case loud and clear. The director’s work with child actors was a direct inspiration on Saudi Arabian director Haifaa al-Mansour’s wonderful “Wadjda” and Lebanese actor-director Nadine Labaki’s more overtly manipulative “Capernaum.” Here, his kids compel and entertain as the girls in “The Florida Project” did, and while a simpler story might have done the trick, this one seems more likely to capture the public’s attention.