Abel is the directorial debut of Diego Luna, star of Y Tu Mama Tambien. It’s about a boy who comes home from a psychiatric facility, and how he begins to literally take the place of his absent father.
Abel is well-acted. It was a pleasure to watch a movie in Spanish for the first time in a few years, just like it’s always a pleasure for me to watch a movie with actors that I don’t recognize as stars. This family drama has strong moments of comedy throughout, and it convinces you, easily, to follow the story that it wants to tell.
The ultimate problem is that, going by the ending, I can’t be sure why the filmmakers chose to tell this story. Even just before the closing segment, you can see the different ways it might try to go. Sadly, it’s one of those movies that starts with a completely implausible idea, and the conclusion becomes difficult to take because of that.
Abel is the titular character, a young boy who has just spent time in a Mexican institution. From the get-go, we start with the incredibly-depressing idea of childhood mental illness. His family is given the option of accepting this quiet little boy back into the house, and they accept. The audience is left to wonder how this quiet child can reintegrate with his mother, older sister, and younger brother.
Abel is an interesting film, because it’s a character piece with a very odd conceit: after his first night home, Abel suddenly takes on the mantle of “man of the house.” He starts talking like an older person, ordering his mom and kids around as if he were their husband and father. For some reason, the local doc – who sees this as the only alternative to moving to Mexico City for better care – tells the family that they should not break the illusion.
So what the audience has, basically is As Good As It Gets, but with a little child who lacks the resources that could improve his life. A lot of solid humor is wrung from this situation – and the laughs come honestly and often. However – for me – there was a delicate problem that was hinted at in AGaiG, but which is stronger here.
This story is very hard to take for a person who cares about plausible stories. The comedy sprinkled throughout the picture works. But it’s still happening under the theme of childhood mental illness, and this depressing idea sort of casts a pall over the film. Aside from child-cancer and child-abuse, it’s the last thing you want to think about, making the plots feel off-center because it feels like a clear setup for disaster…
In some ways, the ending of Abel removes any sense of an arc from its character, and it’s exactly what you would predict from the moment the premise is set up; it’s also a real downer – hell, just the thought of mentally ill children is pretty f—ing sad.
Regardless, the oddest thing about Abel is that it does what it does very well. The viewer gets a fair, naturalistic family portrait in which parents, teens, and young children are all real and vivid characters. The parts feel true-to-life and honest. You get to see an organic look at life in Mexico. These aspects of the pic hold up well against any family drama that I’ve ever seen, really.
I don’t think that the basic premise will bother everyone as it did me. The charm and overall quality of the story will win the audience over. Yet I kept thinking that no mentally-ill child would have their delusions/play accepted as it was here. In a house with an even younger child around, that would definitely never fly.
In fact, even the scene where young Abel tries to fulfill a husband’s “obligation” isn’t as unnerving as it could (it’s filmed well, really). But I can’t shake the idea that multiple adults give free reign to a young child who clearly needs help. Then you reach the end, and you see what you saw at the beginning: a child who doesn’t speak, doesn’t laugh, doesn’t play – like all children should get the chance to.
Obviously, I had a very specific, semi-unusual nit-pick with this film. For the confident and entertaining manner of the movie, for a look at foreign life, I’d recommend Abel to anyone. In fact, it may not even matter if the same issues drive you out of the picture. Ask yourself whether any flaws make this effort less than a very impressive debut for Diego Luno as a director.
Abel has been digitally-distributed by FilmBuff, and is now available on ITunes, Amazon, Youtube, Vudu, and CinemaNow, as well as both PS3 and Xbox360. If you enjoy family dramas and/or foreign films, you should check it out.
if you do a better job than I did of not feeling depressed by the topic.
if you don’t, and it creates fundamental problems for you.