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.
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.
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.