A mesmerizing coming of age adventure in an elemental setting, "Theeb" becomes both more allegorical and more specific to our historical moment the more you think about it. The tale of a Bedouin boy surviving the sands and political crosscurrents of World War I-era Arabia, the film could almost be read as a "Lawrence of Arabia" from the other side of the ethnic fence. But the further this strikingly assured debut feature by the British-born director Naji Abu Nowar goes along, the more it seems a metaphor for fierce self-determination — an origin story for Middle Eastern discontents.
The boy, Theeb (Jacir Eid), is the youngest son of a recently deceased sheik; his job is to tend to the camels and stay out of the way. His tribe still lives a nomadic existence, and when a British officer (Jack Fox) and his Arab guide (Marji Audeh) hire Theeb's grown brother (Hussein Salameh) to lead them along an abandoned pilgrim's trail toward a railroad, the boy disobediently tags along in an act of instinctive curiosity.
The officer has a mysterious wooden box that Theeb mustn't touch and a pocket watch with a woman's photograph inside; he's blond and glamorous in a way that means nothing to Theeb and ultimately very little to the film. This is just one of the ways that the script by Nowar and Bassel Ghandour scrambles the expectations of Western audiences while keeping the storytelling appealingly simple. Our vantage point is almost exclusively through Theeb's watchful, wary eyes as he tries to make sense of bewildering adult behavior.
The cinematography by Wolfgang Thaler turns the Jordanian desert where the film was shot into a gorgeous lunar landscape of warring factions: the armed forces of the British and Ottoman empires, Bedouin rebels, roving groups of bandits. To survive calls for either strategy or innocence, both of which pale before the primordial need for water. A frightening scene in which Theeb falls into a desert well illustrates how too much of this precious resource can even be a danger.
At a certain point, the narrative is pared away to leave the boy traveling across the wastes in the company of a tough, crafty stranger (Hassan Mutlag). He may be a rebel or he may be a bandit; most likely, he's whatever will see him expediently through the day. He despises the coming of the railroad and modernity, and he offers himself as a mentor to Theeb in matters of physical and worldly survival. The boy soaks up the lessons without appearing to commit.
Eid is remarkable in the lead, conveying the nuances of a child's confusion but never playing for easy sympathy. If it weren't for the bursts of wartime violence and one grim sequence of bullet removal, "Theeb" might even make a terrific boy's-own-adventure saga for older children. But I'm not sure they'd be ready for the dark ambiguities of the film's final passages or the steps by which the young hero at last becomes his own man. The film opens with a voice-over proverb: "If the wolves offer friendship, do not count on success." By the last frames, you're no longer certain who the wolves are.
★ ★ ★ ½
Directed by Naji Abu Nowar. Written by Nowar and Bassel Ghandour. Starring Jacir Eid, Hassan Mutlag, Hussein Salameh, Jack Fox. At Kendall Square. 101 minutes. Unrated (as R: violence). In Arabic, with subtitles.