The title might make you think that this is some sort of Hitchcockian thriller, but though it’s tangentially a crime drama, Gulshad Omarova’s film is more a character study of a Kazakstan teenager who gets involved, through his mother’s sleazy Russsian boyfriend, as a recruiter in a sort of underground fight club. (The kid’s name is actually Mustafa, but since he seems slow and somewhat odd, his classmates nickname him Schizo–as he explains helpfully at one point, short for schizophrenic.) When one of the fellows he’s persuaded to climb into the ring dies from a beating, Mustafa takes up with the man’s widow; and to provide for her and her young son, he arranges for his uncle–a vicious old street fighter–to take on the champion and fleece the gangster-boss by thrashing him. The plan works but brings revenge, leading to a robbery and a falling-out between Schizo and the Russian.

In reality the plot of “Schizo” is quite formulaic. Tales of guilt-ridden men who in effect adopt the families of acquaintances whose blood is on their hands are hardly thin on the ground–the premise has been used in scads of war movies, westerns, and film noir classics. (In this case Olga Landina’s widow, Zinka, even has a limp!) But there are several points that set this version apart. One is, of course, the locale–an area unlikely to be familiar to most American viewers. Its bleakness and sense of desolation are captured with a gritty, yet poetic touch by cameraman Hasanbek Kidraliev; some of the compositions are striking. Another is the fact that the protagonist here is not just a youth just on the cusp of adulthood, but one whose seemingly innocent exterior masks a cunning streak capable, it appears, not just of surprising empathy but of nonchalant cruelty as well. Initially Olzhas Nusuppaaev’s blank gaze seems merely empty, but over the course of the film his dark, brooding presence takes on a quietly menacing yet still boyish quality that suits Mustafa very well. The remainder of the cast is distinctly secondary, but Landina and Nurtay Kanagat, as her little son Sanzhik, are affecting, as is Gulnara Eralibeva as Schizo’s mother. Eduard Tabischev, meanwhile, is convincingly rough as the Russian who introduces Mustafa to a life of crime, and Bazkitbek Baimuzhanbetov gives Schizo’s uncle, who until he’s recruited by the boy lives in a striking raised house and steals power line cables for cash, just the right mixture of rascality and nastiness.

“Schizo” falters at the close, with a vaguely feel-good ending that doesn’t seem earned. But the exotic setting and the starkness with which the young man’s story is told–along with Nusuppaev’s muted charisma–help it transcend the narrative commonplaces.