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“I’m just gonna live. Like a normal person.” That simple declaration comes with a painful struggle both for the title character who sets himself that goal and for his anxious family in writer-director Lou Howe‘s Gabriel, an intimate glimpse of the solitude, anger and frustration of mental illness. The intense, uncomfortable drama’s downbeat nature is offset to a degree by the sensitivity of its observation, but the film serves primarily as a showcase for the emotionally raw lead performance of Rory Culkin.
Like a lot of American indies from the Sundance fringe and beyond, this one doesn’t entirely escape the trap of romanticizing its melancholia. But there’s also an undeniable authenticity that inches under the skin in the way Howe tracks his central figure’s obsessive journey. His characters and their conflicted feelings are fully inhabited by a fine, naturalistic cast that dips into the pool of strong New York stage actors.
However, the riveting focus is Culkin, who has grown since his tender early appearance in Kenneth Lonergan‘s beautiful 2000 feature, You Can Count On Me, into an accomplished actor, capable of exploring every nuance in a role that requires him to be both abrasive and vulnerable.
Handsomely shot in and around New York by Wyatt Garfield in icy-blue winter tones, the film acquires its momentum from Gabe’s mission to reconnect with Alice (Emily Meade), a girl from his childhood. The purposeful determination with which he follows her trail, despite having had no contact with her for years, says plenty about his disturbed state of mind. But the details of his condition, his family history and even the adolescent romance that in his head has become his key to wholeness are shared with judicious restraint.
What we do gather from the start is that he’s out on a trial release from a mental health facility, and that his unsupervised excursions in search of Alice are a cause of instant panic to his widowed mother Meredith (Deirdre O’Connell) and his older brother Matt (David Call), a law student soon to take the bar exam. Despite their concern for him, and their love tempered by fatigue and fear, Gabe blames them for his father’s suicide, a shadow that hangs heavily over the family. And he resents sober, sensible Matt’s progress in carving out a life for himself, with a career path and a sweet fiancee (Alexia Rasmussen).
Anyone with experience of chronic depression and instability in a family member or friend is likely to be touched by Gabriel, which is unflinching in its honesty about the self-imprisonment of the title character’s condition as well as the danger that his unpredictable behavior represents. There’s a compelling volatility to his sudden escapes and his edgy interactions both with people close to him and strangers, often underscored by composer Patrick Higgins‘ agitato strings.
Gabe’s quieter moments with his worn-down mother and his grounded, nurturing grandmother (Lynn Cohen) are wrenching. Meredith’s admission that she has lost faith in his ability to function in the outside world is a particularly strong scene, and Howe shows maturity and assurance in his decision to keep the emotional climate mostly subdued, despite occasional threats of violence. Staying consistent with that vein, Gabe’s ultimate encounter with the elusive Alice concludes the film on an effective note of haunting poignancy.
Culkin is terrific, holding nothing back as he quietly plots or frets or mumbles or just stares out with hollow-eyed numbness in probing close-ups.
But while it’s not without suspense, the drama does become somewhat monotonous, even at less than 90 minutes. The tone is just too unrelenting in its moroseness; it could have used a leavening moment or two of humor as a break from the sustained sense of desperation laced with minimal hope. Howe has made a polished, intelligent debut feature that approaches its characters and situations with dramatic and psychological integrity. But it’s more successful as an individual portrait than as a multi-dimensional story, testing our involvement in much the same way Gabe tests the limits of his family’s love.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (World Narrative Competition)
Cast: Rory Culkin, David Call, Deirdre O’Connell, Emily Meade, Lynn Cohen, Louisa Krause, Alexia Rasmussen
Production company: AgX
Director-screenwriter: Lou Howe
Producers: Ben Howe, Luca Borghese
Director of photography: Wyatt Garfield
Production designer: Chris Trujillo
Music: Patrick Higgins
Costume designer: Sarah Mae Burton
Editor: Jane Rizzo
Sales: Preferred Content
No rating, 88 minutes.
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