The 15-year-old boy at the center of Gulshat Omarova's Schizo is, like most titular protagonists in movies like this one, more than just a 15-year-old boy. Portrayed by Olzhas Nussuppaev, he represents his country, Kazakhstan, newly independent of the Soviet yoke, and adrift in poverty, despair and amorality.
His real name is Mustafa, but he has a mental condition of some sort, so the kids at school tease him with the nickname Schizo. He's quiet, laconic, distant and highly malleable: When the bad boys tell him to go into a closet and "bonk" a girl, he goes into the closet -- and gets bonked on the head by his tormentors. And when Sakura, his widowed mother's larcenous boyfriend, entices him into recruiting people to take part in brutal fist fights (some to the death), he naturally acquiesces, lured by Sakura's transparent mentoring camaraderie, which includes high-fives and rides on his motorbike.
The story that unfolds from this setup is terribly simple, but it permits Omarova, who's now based in the Netherlands, to tell a thumbnail story of her homeland. When Ali, a young fighter, dies in the ring, Schizo becomes involved with Ali's toddler son, and with Zinka, Ali's girlfriend, who's caring for the child, and who considers moving to neighboring China to get a good job as a waitress. She once ate often at restaurants, but now she doesn't even own a decent dress.
Schizo drifts into his life of crime partly because of his mental condition and partly out of desperation, which includes a poignant desire to find money for Zinka, whom he's grown to like and to look after. This is the yin of his fundamentally gentle and instinctive but also curiously disaffected nature, which leads him to more than just illegal pugilism. And yet, Omarova brings Schizo's life to a place of renewal and gives him a sense of hope, although more for the sake of national metaphor than narrative integrity.
Where the recent Vodka Lemon, a story of post-Soviet Armenia, was a full-bodied study of a time and place, Schizo is a snapshot, a movie of limited resources and ambitions. How do people survive in this place? How do they make any money at all? Where do they get their valuable U.S. dollars? We never learn that much about their lives. The landscape is barren and speckled with buildings that are either half-built or half-destroyed. The men are loafers, hustlers or macho posers, and the women depend upon them for what little they can get.
Schizo's uncle works on a skeleton crew that installs power lines in the Kazakh boondocks, where there's no power anyway. It's a small ironic detail of everyday life in a movie that needs more of them, and one wonders whether Omarova will have another chance soon to revisit this milieu. In Russian, with subtitles.