Hany Abu-Assad's Omar feels like the kind of movie that gets nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which is exactly what happened to it. That's not a criticism, and it's certainly not a compliment, but the film's "type" is clear enough: a political story told through a personal drama, harsh enough in its themes that it feels like an art film, but straightforward enough in its aesthetic and storytelling that it's not hard to watch. All of which also apply to Abu-Assad's Paradise Now, which was also an Oscar nominee, and to which this film feels very much a spiritual sequel and companion piece.

Like that work, Omar is also quite a bit better than I've just made it sound: it's on the simple side, and it's a bit too hand-holding in its political philosophy, but it also tells a hell of of an interesting human story that has been fleshed out with considerable sophistication and insight by its creator and his mostly non-professional cast. At first blush, it feels like a variation on Romeo and Juliet in occupied Palestine: Omar (Adam Bakri) lives in one cordoned-off segment of the city, Nadia (Leem Lubany) lives in another, and he frequently scales the enormous concrete wall dividing them to be with his beloved. He also scales the wall to meet with her brother, Tarek (Iyad Hoorani), and their friend Amjad (Samer Bisharat), the other two-thirds of a very small, very amateur resistance cell that finds the young men plotting acts of violence against the Israeli soldiers who are one of the more unlikable aspects of their daily life. And this proves to be the start of his woes, when the three of them end up responsible for killing an Israeli soldier: Omar is captured by the authorities, who trick him into making a false confession and then using it as leverage to capture Tarek, who they assume to the killer and mastermind, when in fact it was Amjad who pulled the trigger. And Amjad who, while Omar finds himself turned into a paranoid, hunted animal, starts to move in close to Nadia.

Paranoia is the key word there: Omar eventually turns into a political thriller of the "nobody can be trusted" variety, with Omar realising over the course of his adventures that he's managed to stuff himself into a situation where he either gets killed by the Israelis as a terrorist or by the Palestinians as a traitor and spy. The whole film is burdened with that kind of fatalistic feeling: with this movie, Abu-Assad seems less interested in indicting the specifics of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinian populations they control, and thus not so interested in the psychology of terrorism (the theme of Paradise Now). Instead, the focus is on the toll of occupation, the sense of dragging despair of living in a heavily regimented, surveillance-dominated world where the simplest acts of human life are a potentially life-threatening chore, and no number of suicide bombers can budge that situation an inch.

We see this play out on Bakri's face, a mutable canvass for whatever Abu-Assad requires: the actor has the look of a cleanly-scrubbed model, up until he suddenly, shockingly doesn't, an adopts the beleaguered, weathered expression of someone who has suffered too much and run out of hope. The film doesn't hide from the opportunity to depict violence - there are torture scenes here that could be deeply horrifying if the director and cinematographer Ehab Assal didn't cloak them in a gloomy murk - but it's most cutting, disturbing effects aren't so visceral as that. The best and most sobering thing the movie can ever do is show us how emptiness starts to smother out Omar's personality and spark.

It's a smart piece of character-building that sidesteps the problem that limited Paradise Now somewhat: it isn't overly programmatic and over-eager to make sure we follow along every connection it's making. The way it steps out how this affects this affects this does feel a little overly precise and inorganic at times, but there are far more moments where things bubble up organically, just a matter of watching characters sloshing against each other, checking their reactions to see what that might tell us about their place in the world they inhabit. It's a naturalist film through and through, even when it has the plot details of a melodrama, and the unforced acting thrives in that setting.

As a direct extension of that naturalism, it's also, unfortunately a bit stiff and uncreative in the way it employs its camera, and I do wish that Abu-Assad's sense of visual storytelling was a bit more profound than "if you hold for a long time as people do things in a wide shot, it will make the moment feel more lived-in". I mean, that's true, but it's also a bit boring, and there are stretches where Omar feels a bit like a mass-produced European social realist film with only the thin overlay of novelty that it happens to involve Palestinians. There's nothing with that: social realism has a long and noble history in the employ of politically-motivated cinema, and even if Omar doesn't have quite the schematic morality of other films on the Israel-Palestine conflict, it certainly doesn't leave any doubt where the filmmakers stand on the issue. The aesthetic is a good fit for the topic, it simply feels a bit over-familiar, and that's never a great thing for any movie.

Still, familiar or not, Omar gets at some very impressive, discomfiting truths about the desperate life of young people in the West Bank, stripped of their youthful ebullience and forced to scrabble for survival. It never sacrifices story for being a social document, but it frequently manages to be both things simultaneously, and that mixture makes it a fine and moving piece of cinema no matter how little it tries to push the medium forward.