'Abe': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
An appetizing fusion of diverse influences.

Brazilian documentary filmmaker Fernando Grostein Andrade’s first narrative feature is a lighthearted YA drama centered on a teen curious about his family’s Middle Eastern culinary heritage.

If there's another country as geographically and culturally diverse as the U.S., it's probably Brazil, with its mix of African, European, Asian and native influences. It's a heritage that serves Sao Paulo filmmaker Fernando Grostein Andrade well as he charts the journey of a New York teenager from a mixed Palestinian-Israeli family searching for his identity by exploring his cultural roots.

Drawing on his personal background and the multifaceted aspects of both Brazilian and American culture, Andrade serves up an enticing dramedy that wholeheartedly celebrates the potential for multicultural cuisine to unite people from distinctly different traditions, even in the face of determined opposition.

That sort of intransigence can pose all kinds of challenges in a politically divided family, but birthday and holiday celebrations tend to be especially stressful. Just ask Abraham Solomon-Odeh (Noah Schnapp), an only child whose Israeli and Palestinian grandparents can barely hold a conversation without disagreeing. His mom, Rebecca (Dagmara Dominczyk), and dad, Amir (Arian Moayed), aren't much help at keeping peace in the family, even though they claim to be completely agnostic.

So it's no surprise to Abe when his 12th birthday party devolves into all-out hostilities among his relatives. Everyone claims they want the best for him, but they show pretty scant support for his interests, particularly his passion for food and cooking, which he indulges on his "Abe Cooks" Tumblr blog. Ditching the disgruntled adults to check out a street fair in his multiethnic neighborhood, he tracks down Brazilian chef Chico's (Seu Jorge) "Mix It Up" kitchen, featuring a fusion of South American, New York and Jamaican flavors.

Dragging Middle East politics into a Brooklyn household may seem conveniently contrived, but Andrade makes this setup work by interweaving conflicting cultural values into the context of the American immigrant experience, with Abe bearing primary responsibility for assimilating his complex heritage. As he searches for a catalyst that could override decades of ingrained bias and bring his relatives together without acrimony, Abe wonders if somehow the flavors and foods of his grandparents' homeland might hold some clues.

Dreading spending the summer at a cooking camp for clueless newbies where he's sure to learn little that's new, Abe practically begs Chico for a job, persuading him to reluctantly agree on an unpaid internship instead. At least it gets Abe into a professional kitchen, where he's immediately assigned to dishwashing and trash-hauling detail, which only makes his aspirations seem more remote. Convincing Chico that he's the ideal student of fusion cuisine will require Abe to demonstrate some of his well-honed kitchen skills to win over his new mentor, and his family.

Andrade and his Palestinian-American screenwriters seem less concerned about their transparent manipulation of the film's characters than in setting Abe up for a transformative experience that draws from both his Jewish and Muslim backgrounds. One outcome of this process is some fairly politicized maneuvering by Abe's grandfathers as they attempt to claim cultural superiority in a contest that may hold little interest for teen viewers and appear overly familiar for many adults.

When they're focusing on Abe's point of view, as he posts pics and animated GIFs on his blog or shoots foodie video clips with his phone, the filmmakers come much closer to capturing the head-spinning variety of virtual and actual stimuli clamoring for a typical teenager's attention. Abe's ability to integrate these competing inputs, blending them with his culinary and cultural influences, hints at the diversified skill set that younger generations are poised to access in addressing sometimes divisive social issues.

Schnapp, pivoting 180 degrees from the sci-fi horror of Stranger Things, delivers an appealing performance grounded in Abe's struggle to connect with his family. While this sometimes involves behavior that may not always seem to align with his personality, such as ditching summer camp or lying to his parents, these inconsistencies also reveal Abe's gradual growth as he stretches beyond his comfort zone to pursue his ambitions.

Although he's too infrequently seen outside of Brazilian productions, renowned musician and actor Jorge effortlessly demonstrates his artistic versatility, easily adapting to Chico's position as chef-philosopher while mentoring Abe. For Jorge, it's a role that relies as much on his mellifluous delivery of English-language dialogue as it does on his soulfully sincere counsel to a confused teen with great potential.

Perhaps cognizant of the appeal of youth-skewing foodie documentaries and reality series like Chef Flynn and MasterChef Junior, Blasco Giurato's (Cinema Paradiso) cinematography sticks primarily to a realistic style, enlivened by occasional animated sequences and brief video clips.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Kids)
Production companies: Spray, Gullane

Distributor: Paris Filmes
Cast: Noah Schnapp, Seu Jorge, Dagmara Dominczyk, Arian Moayed, Mark Margolis, Salem Murphy, Tom Mardirosian, Daniel Oreskes
Director: Fernando Grostein Andrade
Screenwriters: Lameece Issaq, Jacob Kader
Producers: Carlos Eduardo Ciampolini, Noberto Pinheiro Jr., Caio Gullane, Fabiano Gullane
Executive producers: Andrea Giusti, Fabio Golombek, Claudia Buschel, Paula Linhares, Marcos Tellechea
Director of photography: Blasco Giurato
Production designer: Claudia Calabi
Costume designer: Ornella Chiossone
Editors: Claudia Castello, Suzanne Spangler, Bruno Lasevicius
Music: Guilherme Amabis
Sales: Spray Filmes

85 minutes