The street kids who rummage through the urban wasteland of Morocco's Casablanca look wise beyond their years. Or make that just plain older, for whatever wisdom they've picked up over time, it hasn't helped them much. They sell individual cigarettes for change, panhandle whenever possible, fight amongst themselves, and sniff glue from tattered cloths.
All of them, except Ali, who not only dreams of a better place but even seems to have a plan. But just as his dream is about to come through, his former gang kills him, and his friends are left stranded. They have two choices: bury and honor their fallen comrade or surrender to the former gang and its mute leader.
Nabil Ayouch's Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets presents a world of little big people, kids who are going nowhere fast and trying to find some thread of humanity that can help lift them up from their cycle of poverty. Ali's surviving pals -- Kweta (Mounim Kbab), Omar (Mustapha Hansali) and Boubker (Hicham Moussoune) -- decide that a princely burial for their flamboyant friend will give them something to hang onto. And it's that interplay among the three, each of whom has his own inner struggles, that makes Prince of the Streets so endearing. Kbab, Hansali and Moussoune may be pre-teens, but they sure don't act like it. With every harrowing experience, every introspective conversation and every choice, they act like people who've been asked to deal with way too much way too soon.
But through it all, the dreams endure. Ali's was the most magical: he wanted to be a sailor, and in giving him his proper send-off instead of leaving him to rot, his comrades in raggy-clothed arms might begin to pursue their own dreams.
Though it gives into more than its fair share of sentimentalism -- call it Stand by Me in the Ghetto -- Prince of the Streets knows exactly where its strength lies. Ayouch deftly sets up the kids' mission to provide their friend a proper burial as its own little microcosmic journey of self-awareness, but really, the joy of this is watching young actors show just how relative age can be.