Majid Majidi’s latest portrait of the lives of Iranian youths, Sun Children, is essentially an anti-children’s film. It promises to be a rousing adventure, with 12-year-old street tough Ali (Rouhollah Zamani) and his scrappy group of friends entrusted by a neighborhood crime boss, Heshem (Ali Nasirian), to find hidden treasure. But Majidi is unflinching when it comes to depicting the various ways these impoverished children must make their living—and, in Ali’s case, earn money to help his sick mother—and how they’re often exploited for labor. And for the film, this proves to be both a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, Majidi admirably refuses to sugarcoat the harsh environment that his characters inhabit, an imposing, merciless world defined by the quick hustle, which contextualizes everyone’s actions as being economically motivated. On the other, the sheer number of hardships, big and small, that befall his characters—even the film’s most seemingly innocent figure, Zahra (Shamila Shirzad), who scorns Ali’s activities but serves brief jail time for a transgression of her own—start to feel like dramatic overkill after a while. This tends to nudge Sun Children dangerously close to the cloying and dreaded realm of poverty porn.
Ultimately, Majidi’s humanism, specifically his reliable sensitivity to the emotional states of his young characters, allows Sun Children to shake off such borderline exploitative underpinnings. Ali and his friends must enroll in a local community organization called the Sun School in order to find the buried treasure, and this storyline is profound for the way it suggests that Ali’s blossoming compassion for others would be impossible without this school devoted to educating street kids like him. Not only does the Sun School pave the way for Ali and his friends to enjoy childhood for once and, inadvertently, question the nature of their treasure hunt, it also allows Ali to gradually see how happy his friends become when assorted opportunities, such as an invitation to a soccer league, are opened up to them.
Still, success remains elusive for everyone here, despite their remarkable perseverance. Always there’s a sense of them being victimized by outside forces beyond their control. Ali’s friend, Abolfazl (Abolfazl Shirzad), who was thriving at the Sun School, is caught in a state of uncertain residency status due to his position as an Afghan refugee. Even the school struggles to survive because of lack of funding from Iran’s public education system. In this sense, Majidi suggests that Ali’s world inculcates a tragic fatalism among the have-nots. That much is clear from the dull glimmer of hope provided by the film’s end. It’s a bleak denouement, for sure, and even if it underscores that Sun Children tends toward the dramatically monotonous, Majidi’s unwavering sense of purpose ensures that his story is compellingly human.