A typical coming-of-age tale starts with a confused kid. Coming to understand what they didn’t before is what evolves the character, but “Theeb,” a bildungsroman from Jordan, isn’t a typical coming-of-age story. The titular character, Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), is self-assured, rarely questioning himself. He focuses only on what he understands. It’s a refreshing character to see, one who the movie reflects intimately.
Director Naji Abu Nowar never deviates from Theeb’s perspective. Not only does this streamline the narrative, but it shows that, like Theeb himself, Nowar’s confident in where he’s going. You’d think he was a seasoned veteran, but “Theeb” is Nowar’s first feature. Joining him, the cast is mostly non-professional actors. Knowing that, this narrative synergy is even more remarkable.
Theeb is a young Bedouin boy, recently orphaned and caught in the middle of World War I (WWI). He lives with his brother Hussein in the Ottoman Empire controlled Jordan. One night, an English soldier, Edward (Jack Fox, “Kids in Love”), and his guide seek shelter with Theeb’s tribe. They leave the next morning, Hussein guiding them to their destination. Enticed by a locked box the Englishman has, Theeb decides to follow them.
From then on, viewers see the world as Theeb, and he has one goal: to make his own decisions. More often, he is told what to do by family and strangers alike. His insistence that he can fend for himself goes unheard. But Nowar gives him the visual power, shooting Theeb from low angles to emphasize his autonomy.
Theeb is self-sufficient, to be sure, but not immune to the complexity of war. A larger, more complicated story, involving the Great Arab Revolt, unfolds around him. Nowar, however, never lets that distract him. A lot of violence is implied, the big explosion, Hollywood blockbuster kind of violence, but it speaks to Nowar’s restraint that he only shows its aftermath.
In the end, “Theeb” finds its strength in those aftermaths. Viewers meet Theeb on the heels of his father’s death and the Englishman after his separation from the battalion. It is a beautifully told story, hard-hearted and hopeful all at once. Nowar and Al-Hwietat know Theeb, and this story, backwards and front. Beautifully quiet and elegantly shot, “Theeb” is a heart-twisting tale from an already consummate director.