Thursday, January 06, 2011

Review - Abel

Diego Luna has elected to make his directorial debut with a slight and modest drama that nevertheless allows him to display his filmmaking aptitude and his ability to juggle a variety of tones. Set in Aguascalientes, Mexico, Abel concerns a troubled young boy (Christopher Ruíz-Esparza) who has just been released from a psychiatric ward after a long and fruitless stay. His doctors, having failed to cure his odd mood swings and distant demeanour, recommend that he is moved to a hospital in Mexico City for further treatment, but his mother (Karina Gidi) is desperate for Abel to come home. The doctors reluctantly acquiesce, on the condition that he is kept under close observation, and in the film's opening section, Diego Luna keeps his young leading man under close observation too, using close-ups to create an intimacy with Ruíz-Esparza, isolating him from his family and focusing us on Abel's particular view of his surroundings.

Abel is an inscrutable figure, silent for many of the film's early scenes, but when he finally does open his mouth, the film shifts gears in an interesting way. The eldest son, noting that his father is absent, suddenly assumes the role of the man of the house, treating his siblings like his son and his daughter and talking to his mother as if she's his wife. There are some neat comedic moments as Abel makes disapproving comments about his older sister's choice of boyfriend, or demands silence at the breakfast table while he reads his paper, and Luna handles these exchanges effectively. However, the success of these scenes is primarily down to Christopher Ruíz-Esparza, who is note-perfect in his depiction of a 9 year-old child not just playing at being a grown-up, but actually believing he is a grown-up, and by the excellent Gidi as his anxious mother. She cautiously persuades her other children to play along with Abel's fantasy and see where it leads – she's just so relieved to see her child talking again.

It's a credulity-testing premise and I often wondered how far Luna could take it. Fortunately, within the tight confines of Abel's 82 minutes, he and co-screenwriter Augusto Mendoza have positioned their plot developments intelligently, shifting the tone or moving the film forward whenever it looks like it might be running thin. The arrival of Abel's father (José María Yazpik) after a two-year absence (he claims he was working in the US) further destabilises the family dynamic, and this stern patriarch is in no mood to be lenient with his young son's odd behaviour. Luna works the conflict between them well and finds emotional complexities in both their relationship and in the marriage between the two parents.

Luna only stumbles a few times, although considering the risky territory he ventures into (Abel attempts to fulfill a husband's duties in the bedroom, without really knowing what they are), such missteps are relatively scarce and minor. He tells his story at a confident, unhurried pace, and he builds towards a climax that brings a tangible sense of danger into Abel's fantasy. Only after the film did I appreciate how well Luna had developed the film's emotional register, balancing light and shade. Abel works as a comedy and a drama, as a touching portrait of a damaged family, and as a parable about the dangers of growing up too fast, but mostly it's notable as a fine calling card for a man who may as adept behind the camera as he is in front of it.

Read my interview with Diego Luna here