Review: Young star of 'Capernaum' dazzles

Fares Sokhon
Zain Al Rafeea and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole in Capernaum.

A good child actor is hard to find, but in Capernaum director Nadine Labaki has improbably found a troupe of them. It's a rare thing to walk out of a movie thinking a year-old baby's a fantastic actor, but it's true here. Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) — one of the movie's standout performers (though many are good) — not only works convincingly on cue, he consistently displays a full and profound emotional range. Even as he struggles to walk, his body language expresses elation, curiosity, and upset above and beyond what's required, making his stamina and consistency a real sight. Incredibly, he manages to choke down dry baby formula (during a water shortage that takes place onscreen) without crying or moping about it — among other feats — more than most adults would likely manage. And he's just one of many splendid performers.

Pluck, so often the sole onscreen mode for child actors (see: most adventure movies from the '80s forward, also many recent indies), is here contextualized by a deeply felt awareness of Capernaum's setting and milieu, which necessitate droves of that same trait. Set mostly in the scrappier tenements, markets, and side streets of several parts of Lebanon, Capernaum finds Zain, who's roughly 12, working overtime conducting all sorts of street hustles before running away due to trouble in his overcrowded home. Though he's a charming kid, as feisty and combative as he is sweet and expressive, he displays pluck not just as some cutesy schtick; instead, it's for him a kind of learned resilience essential to survival. Whether he's hawking fruit juice and opioids in the street with his many siblings or telling his elders to fuck off — or to "eat [his] fist" — Zain's persona is always entirely credible. Like his actions, it's both deeply felt for him as an individual (both as a person and performer) while being ground and honed against the impossibly rough circumstances he's immersed in. He's as schooled by circumstance as he is by example, absorbing the hard-edged talk and demeanor of those around him into the way he conducts himself. When he's accused of stabbing someone, we believe it — but still care for him.

As in last year's Shoplifters, the deeds of Capernaum's central characters are rarely condemned, celebrated, or excused explicitly; their world is treated evenhandedly, and the forms of crime, abuse, and neglect Zain and his family are driven to commit seem less the product of free choice than brute realities of getting by in an unfair world. (Some other crooked people hover to prey on their misfortunes, however, and Labaki treats them less gently). An undocumented kid whose parents can't confirm his age or birthday, Zain and his family reside near the absolute bottom of the economic ladder, and each member's moral calculus is shaped by their immediate realities. Though the movie treats these pretty thoroughly (it's framed by a series of courtroom scenes) and clashes arise in their conflicting views and boundaries, what's most absorbing in Capernaum are the lively details that run throughout.

Among them: the casual inventiveness of the characters as they go about their workdays; the piercing, faintly refracted light that cuts through the movie's urban alleyways; the beauty mark Rahil, an undocumented Ethiopian refugee (and another sterling performer), draws on her face daily to evade capture. It's with her that Zain finds himself passing his days after fleeing home — and despite their difference in age, they strike an agreement in which he nannies Yonas, her infant son, as she goes to work each day. As the movie progresses, the pressures on Zain in this role grow immensely, and the film's second half sees him hustling under the outsized burdens of being both caretaker and breadwinner at an impossibly young age.

Zain and Yonas' relationship is at once convincingly acted and plainly valorized, the film's most romantic and stirring thread. It's teased out, too, through both strange and more conventional devices; in one of the movie's few fanciful touches, Zain repeatedly encounters an old man dressed in a knockoff Spider-Man costume (he says he's the character's cousin, Cockroach-Man). In what has to be a deliberate stroke, the faded red-and-blue costume is reiterated in the colors — for much of the movie — of Zain and Yonas' daily dress. The implication is clear; the film regards the three as heroes of a certain kind (possibly, chiefly, of their own stories), calling attention to the remarkable nature of their survival and the skewed nature of their shared world.

As in 2017's The Florida Project, Capernaum's harsher realities are leavened throughout by humor and a singular energy — albeit with less sentimentality and fewer fantastical touches. The urban realism seen here is troubling, absorbing, and transporting enough already, making Capernaum's dramatic climax feel — like a few other sequences — overscored and overlong. The movie's rich enough in feeling without moving to play up sentiment, and its most affecting portions seem to occur quite naturally, as characters work mightily to look after each other. What's lacking in the turned-up climax is also Capernaum's finest feature, its sense of dailiness, its ability to convincingly depict casually and with little pretense the rhythms of its day-to-day. By its nature, as fiction, it can't depict the reality that the rest of the movie knows so well: that what's remarkable to us is for the characters routine — which doesn't make it, or what's been accomplished here, any less of an achievement or a struggle.

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