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'Theeb' winds tension and harsh beauty into a winning coming-of-age tale

 'Theeb' winds tension and harsh beauty into a winning coming-of-age tale
A boy follows his older brother in a fraught desert journey in the film “Theeb,” set in 1916’s Ottoman Empire. (Laith Al-Majali / Film Movement)

A disarmingly complex boyhood adventure with no shortage of tension or harsh beauty, "Theeb" marks a winning debut feature for co-writer and director Naji Abu Nowar.

Set in the Ottoman Empire in 1916, it chronicles the fraught journey of a tribal boy, Theeb (Jacir Eid), who excitedly follows his older brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh), tasked with escorting a British officer (Jack Fox) and his guide (Marji Audeh) across the desert.

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The trip is fraught with bandits and mercenaries, however. In an unforgiving canyon pass, the group meets a violent fate that tests not merely young Theeb's skills at survival but also, in an encounter with a wounded stranger (Hassan Mutlag), his Bedouin-taught strength of character in the face of unimaginable hardship.

Both a classically taut '50s western and an Arabic coming-of-age drama, "Theeb" boasts emotionally resonant location cinematography from Wolfgang Thaler and a desert sound design — camels, wind, the echoed yells of bad men, a haunted score, even silence — that's straight out of any dangerously curious boy's most breathless nightmare.

In fact, it's Nowar's ability to tell his tale so firmly from the viewpoint of his quickly growing-up protagonist, and to elicit so unforced a performance from Eid, that may be the most impressive achievement of this intimate, well-paced film.

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"Theeb"

MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.

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