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An uncommonly moving feature about characters in desperate circumstances, SCHIZO offers both a unique coming-of-age story and a sterling feature debut by director Guka Omarova. The film concerns Mustafa, or "Schizo," a boy not quite 15 years old, who becomes caught up in sordid adult dealings, and must struggle to maintain his sense of beauty and right as he develops the expertise and thick skin of a true player. Growing up in the destitute early '90s Kazakhstan, and nicknamed "Schizo" for his eccentric behavior in school (for which he also earns a drug regimen and the ominous prospect of other treatments), the young man lives an unrewarding home life in early-'90s Kazakhstan with his single mother and her boyfriend Sakura (a small-time hood.) The makeshift family is poor, and the adults pay little attention to Schizo's prospects, except that Sakura offers Schizo a role in his own income scheme: procuring other men who will agree to fight in an underground and illegal boxing syndicate. The men will vie for money and cars, but few will ever win, and some are horribly injured. Already toughened by life, Schizo takes to this work with zeal, happy to have a little spending money. But he is taken aback when one recruit - a young man named Ali - dies after his boxing match, entrusting a small amount of money to Schizo, to be delivered to Ali's girlfriend Zina.

Feeling a faint sympathy for the dead Ali, Schizo finds Zina, a somewhat older woman, living in a small hovel on the outskirts of his town. Also living there is someone Ali never mentioned: his young son Sanzhik, a mere toddler who finds the new, teenage stranger intriguing. Keenly aware of Zina's wrenching poverty (as well as her debilitating limp), Schizo delivers Ali's money without initially breaking the news of his tragic death. Finally observing this last formality, he becomes a regular visitor at Zina's home. Much to their mutual surprise, the three young, wounded people take on the aspect of a family more functional than Schizo's own. Schizo and Zina undertake a physical relationship (especially tender, given his relative inexperience). Schizo also develops a special bond with young Sanzhik, gradually coming to provide the stability and warmth that his own childhood has so sorely lacked. But in his growing desire to support Zina and Sanzhik, Schizo must raise more money, and he redoubles his involvement with the illegal fighting operation, even recruiting an alcoholic uncle to undergo the punishing ordeal. When the uncle's unexpected win foils the schemes of Sakura's crooked boss, Schizo faces possible disaster - and realizes that this represents calamity to his new family as well. The decisions he makes next are both noble and wrenching.

Austere direction, stark imagery and magnificent performances (especially by a remarkable Olzhas Nusuppaev in the title role) combine in a memorable portrait of a vulnerable and humane young man, blossoming in the toxic soil of a devastated country.


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