There are plenty of geopolitically conscious reasons for taking a look at the Lebanon-set period drama “Zaytoun.” To remember the deadly, headlines-dominating conflict that gripped the Beirut region in the early ’80s, when the Lebanese civil war raged and Israel stood poised to invade. To consider the film’s intriguing what-if exploration of a friend-and-mentor bond between an orphaned Palestinian youth and an Israeli man in dire circumstances of his own.
Still, we’ve also got to admit right upfront: Part of our interest was simply to see what Stephen Dorff is doing playing an Israeli POW. Dorff’s go-to persona — unshaven stud with a grungy edge — has made an impression in credits stretching from “Blade” to “Public Enemies,” but it has also made for straight-to-video fodder like the subtly titled “Carjacked.” Would Dorff have it in him to play something presumably fairly layered? Or to do the accent?
In the end, Dorff makes a respectable showing of his tour through challenging territory, as does the film as a whole. Director Eran Riklis (“The Syrian Bride”) casts Abdallah El Akal as Fahed, a boy who knows no life other than the refugee-camp existence he scratches out with his father and grandfather. (The setting feels authentically rendered by Riklis’s Haifa location work.) Fahed doesn’t think an inordinate amount about his dangerous surroundings — the scooter riders passing by toting rocket launchers, the sniper-infested short cuts. He rolls with the contemptuous slurs of the Lebanese, and his forced military training by the Palestine Liberation Organization.
At the same time, he does take in his father’s beatific talk about the life they’ll one day reclaim back in their ancestral village. The thought turns from dream to angry fixation for Fahed after his father is killed in a bombing raid. When Yoni (Dorff), an Israeli fighter pilot, is shot down and captured a short time later, Fahed has a representative figure to blame, as well as a resource to pump for information about how to find his way back home. It’s a dynamic destined to evolve into deeper understanding, as Fahed, increasingly affected by the encroaching violence, frees Yoni and joins him on a perilous trek to the border. (The boy totes along the film’s central metaphor, a potted, nascent olive tree — “Zaytoun” in Arabic — that his father had been tending.) This dramatic arc isn’t all that complicated, considering, but it’s certainly heartfelt.
A scene between Yoni and Fahed in the pilot’s makeshift holding cell is a microcosm of everything that’s right about the movie, and not quite right. Silly development: A resident PLO guerrilla impresses on Fahed that Yoni is worth a thousand Palestinian prisoners in trade — then promptly takes off and leaves the junior trainees in charge, in a move right out of a YA novel. Smarter element: the very natural kid behavior that Fahed’s pals slip into on duty, including taunting Yoni with a juvenile, multilingual ditty about Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon (whose name conveniently happens to rhyme with pantalons). Silly: the stilted way that cultural-divide verbal sparring between Fahed and Yoni gets overextended — one of a few instances in which Riklis ignores a tailor-made scene cut, and El Akal’s come-and-go natural ease fails him. Smarter: the pair’s truculent exchange concerning a map of Palestine, dialogue that Yoni punctuates by saying, flatly, “There is no Palestine.” It’s a lot for these two to get past.