Movies don't come much simpler than "The White Balloon," which is about a 7-year-old girl who wants a special goldfish as she and her family are about to celebrate the new year.
The girl nags her mother, finally gets the money, then loses it on her way to the local bazaar.
That's about it, plotwise. Not much else happens, really.
And yet, despite its simplicity or perhaps because of it "The White Balloon" is one of the most charming and delightfully entertaining films to come along in some time.
Set during the hour-and-a-half before New Year's Day (March 21) in Tehran, the film begins with young Razieh trying to talk her mother into giving her the money to go out and purchase a goldfish for their New Year's celebration (an Iranian New Year's tradition).
Mom is reluctant, however they already have goldfish for the holiday. But Razieh protests that they're too skinny! She wants to buy a specific goldfish from a particular merchant. So when she finally finagles the money Mom only has a large banknote and she wants the change Razieh races for the shop.
But there are a lot of distractions between home and the bazaar that catch a little girl's eye, and she loses the money along the way. The bulk of the film concerns her efforts mostly futile to retrieve the bill, which she eventually discovers has fallen beneath a sidewalk grating.
Like "Nick of Time" last year, "The White Balloon" unfolds in real time, beginning 90 minutes prior to the New Year's celebration, so that as Razieh's tension builds, so does audience sympathy. And the film is loaded with fascinating vignettes, as when wide-eyed Razieh encounters snake charmers who try to take her money. (She has been warned to avoid them but later says she wanted to see "what it was that was not good for me to watch.")
To be sure, those unfamiliar with Iranian culture will be baffled by some of the film's details. But that hardly matters and in fact, it adds to the film's charm as the story progresses and the audience gains greater interest in Razieh's plight.
Helmed with a loving hand by Jafar Panahi, "The White Balloon" explores childhood on its own terms, with great respect and an unerring sense of truth.
And for foreign-language film fans, this is a wonderful opportunity to see a lovely piece of work from a land whose cinematic exports are rare in this country. (And particularly in this market.)
In the end, however, what really makes the film work is the casting of young Aida Mohammadkhani as Razieh, whose natural warmth and stubborn determination make her identifiable to anyone who has ever been a parent.
Or a child, for that matter.