Nadine Labaki is the Lebanese writer-director who enjoyed an arthouse hit with her beauty-salon romcom Caramel back in 2007. A decade or so on, Labaki has returned to our screens with a film that scooped a Jury Prize at Cannes last year and at the very least has an immediate and not inconsiderable hook. In its opening minutes, Capernaum shows us a scrappy street kid (Zain Al Rafeea), barely older than ten, being dragged in cuffs into a courtroom and demanding he be allowed to sue his parents for divorce. OK, you say: I'm in. It arrives as a pretty colossal disappointment, then, that this pronouncement should only cue a long flashback that explains why this kid should have been pushed into this extreme stance: the long days of child labour in heat and rain, the nights of sleeping three or four to a bed, the draining efforts to protect a sister, herself barely fourteen, from a local shopkeeper's predations. These scenes are not without value as a guided tour of an unfamiliar place, and generate a certain energy and colour: after several handheld-shot skirmishes with Bad Mum and Dad, the kid absconds to a fairground and falls in with an Ethiopian single mum who doubles as a toilet attendant, Labaki letting her camera run as our boy feels his way into this new domestic set-up. Yet the point (life is hard) is made early on, and the more it gets underlined, highlighted, put in capital letters and then set in neon, the more the underlying structure seems neat, tidy and naggingly simplistic. Labaki forsakes the chaos of the title for something far more diagrammatic, photogenic and saleable. In an extended sidebar within the central flashback, we're shown how the kid becomes an impromptu guardian to the woman's toddler, a development that has nothing to do with the divorce proceedings, yet must occupy half the running time, purely as it gives a writer-director access to a certain symmetry: the boy who wants nothing to do with his parents caring for a kid who desperately needs one.
The framework placed around these plot turns is something like the arthouse equivalent of a superhero origin story, taking two hours to circle back around to the present tense, and thereby explaining exactly how the protagonist was toughened up. Labaki actually seems to be aware of this similarity, setting young Zain down on a bus next to an aged oddbod in a knock-off Spider-Man costume who calls himself Cockroach Man; our boy is presumably meant as the Cockroach Kid, hard-shelled and indestructible. Yet with his doe eyes and moptop hair, Al Rafeea is way too model-agency to convince as a down-and-dirty mite who grew up in the gutter; he's the poster boy for child poverty. Labaki made some of the right choices on set, which explains why you stick with it: individual scenes have a whirlwind urgency and spontaneity, catching even passers-by up in the eye of the storm, and she delights in letting the kids run their mouths off at grown-ups and one another, which cuts through the sentimentality to some degree. (They really do say the funniest things.) But she's covering up the many ordinary - sometimes outright misguided - choices she made at the writing stage. You want to know what's going on between Zain and his birth parents back at the courtroom, source of Capernaum's most promising drama, and your hopes slowly fade as scene after scene in the flashback burps up no more than cutesy-poo neo-realism. By the time we get back before the judge, there's not enough time for anything other than dashed-through, phoney-seeming resolution, frantic gabbling meant to tie these events together in a heartwarming, tearjerking bow. Caramel was very enjoyable, and there remain elements to admire here, but it's been a long while since I saw a film that sets off this clearly down completely the wrong path.
Capernaum opens in selected cinemas from Friday.