Sundance Review: Abel

There’s something wrong with Abel. We know this moments into Diego Luna’s directorial debut, aptly titled Abel. He’s a young boy who has been hospitalized for several years after an unexplained breakdown. The breakdown, we almost learn later, has something to do with the absence of his father. I say that we almost learn because we never really know what brought Abel to this place, nor do we really need to know. What’s fascinating about him is what comes next.

Upon being returned home by his mother, Abel leads a quiet life for a few days, readjusting to a world that involves his little brother, big sister and now pretty much single mother. But there’s still something wrong with Abel. He begins to act out in a peculiar way, as if he were his father. He begins ordering his little brother around, teaching him life lessons as any father would. He also interrogates (quite amusingly) the prospective boyfriend of his older sister, who isn’t exactly having any fun with the situation. Fearing that if he’s seen to still be ill that he will be taken away from her to a distant hospital in Mexico City, his mother urges her family (and even Abel’s father, who eventually shows up again) to play along, leading to some peculiar, and increasingly risky situations.

For a first time director, Diego Luna has certainly taken a risk in an effort to tell a story that is original. Good for him, I say, as it has paid off with the rise of this charming, affecting film. At its core, this is a wonderful ensemble piece with touching performances from Karina Gidi as the mother and a darling performance from young Christopher Ruíz-Esparza, who plays Abel.

It is a strange story, but one that weaves its way through the emotional spectrum with the expert touch of a director wise beyond his first feature. What begins sad is quickly made funny, then made sad again. But the sadness is interrupted by more delightful moments, followed by intensely dramatic scenes that feel grounded in consequence. Every performance (and thus every character) navigate smoothly through the entire gamut of emotions, leaving the audience glued to the abnormal life of this lower middle-class Mexican family.

As I’ve already mentioned, there’s something advanced about Luna’s handling of this distinctive story. There is a level of care given to every moment of the film, a seemingly earnest attempt to make even the most absurd situation feel rooted in reality. It asks the question: what would you do if you’re child were sick in a way that was (seemingly) harmless to the rest of your family? Would you hide that to avoid losing them? It’s certainly a question that no parent would ever want to answer. And seen through the eyes of Gidi’s character, we can feel the weight of such a choice. It is this intimacy with her character that makes Abel such a heartfelt journey. It delivers waves of emotion as we navigate a peculiar landscape, meandering only a bit as the story of Abel unfolds.

It is wonderful to see a young actor whose work in front of the camera is so likable to step behind the camera and make such an honest, personal film that is technically sound. Being an adept storyteller isn’t easy, especially on a low budget. But in the case of Luna, creativity and commitment to a story with depth triumph. If there is such a thing as a natural storyteller, Luna may be cut from that cloth.

Neil Miller is the Founder and Publisher of Film School Rejects. For almost a decade, he has been talking movies on television, the radio, and the Internet.

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