DIRECTOR JULIAN SCHNABEL has a singular ability to invite his audience inside the worlds he creates, to plunge a viewer into landscapes that are disorienting yet familiar—life as experienced by someone who is not you. (If you saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, you know exactly what I'm talking about.) He does this with music, color, and a camera that jumps and flutters with the unsteadiness of sight—immersive techniques that come as close as film can to replicating actual experience.

Schnabel's strengths are visual and atmospheric, and they jar in frustrating ways with the script for Miral, his plot-heavy, years-spanning latest. Miral, at its best, provides a poetic window into one Palestinian girl's experience of the Arab/Israeli conflict. Before it gets there, though—before we even meet the titular Miral (Freida Pinto)—Schnabel has a lot of backstory to shoehorn in: First the history of an orphanage in Jerusalem, founded to house Palestinian children whose parents have been killed. Then Miral's sad, drunken mother; her handsome, caring father; Miral herself, sent to the orphanage when her father can no longer care for her. And so on, whizzing through years of blunt exposition (and a CliffsNotes history lesson) in order to catch us up to Miral in 1987, now an educated, relatively privileged young woman growing into her political consciousness in one of the most complicated political situations in the world.

As Miral's experiences—tutoring children in a refugee camp, watching a Palestinian home be destroyed—lead her toward an increasingly radical worldview, her perspective is far more interesting than any backstory about an orphanage. When Schnabel is trying to tell us a story—Person A meets Person B, and so forth—Miral feels forced. When he simply lets us experience the world as his characters do, it's remarkable.