Abel -- Film Review

A remarkably natural performance by a nine-year-old newcomer buoys Diego Luna's sweet but slight directorial debut.

PARK CITY -- Guaranteed to be something you've never seen before, "Abel," helmed by Mexican actor Diego Luna making his feature-directing debut, is the tale of a psychologically troubled nine-year-old boy who imagines he is the head of his fractured family.

It's a bittersweet, if slight, story, buoyed by a winning and heartfelt performance by non-pro Christopher Ruiz-Esparza in the title role. Fans of Luna and the New Mexican cinema will want to check it out and it's a natural for worldwide festivals but might be a tough sell for theatrical outlets.

Luna, aided by cinematographer Patrick Murguia's beautiful and subtle use of color, has created a totally lived in environment dominated by the frazzled matriarch Cecilia (Karina Gidi) since her husband Anselmo (Jose Maria Yazpik) left two years ago. We never know if this is the beginning of Abel's problems but as the film opens his mother is taking him home from a mental institution where he's been for the last two years.

Silent and given to unpredictable outbursts, somewhat controlled by drugs, Abel is a strain on his family, including his younger brother Paul (Geraldo Ruiz-Esparza, Christopher's real-life brother) and his teenage sister Selene (Geraldine Alejandra). They all live in an uneasy state awaiting Abel's next episode. Then something remarkable happens: He takes over the household.

He imagines his siblings are his children and his mother is his wife. It creates the opportunity for some amusing comic bits such as when he interrogates his sister's girlfriend before a date or sits down at the breakfast table and reads the newspaper. Straddling some dangerous Oedipal territory, Abel sleeps next to his mother, climbs on top of her for a second, pretends to share a cigarette, and then the next morning announces to his "kids" that the stork left a note and is bringing them a baby brother.

While everyone is glad Abel has come out of his shell, there is also an underlining sadness to his condition, and when his never-do-well father, who actually has a second family going, shows up, the delicate balance is disturbed. The boisterous Anselmo is not one for delicacy or psychological sensitivity.

Luna and Augusto Mendoza's screenplay is more concerned with observing the details of daily life and commenting on Mexican manhood and other domestic issues than moving the story along with major plot developments. As a slice of life, it doesn't pick up much momentum and slides gently into an inevitable resolution. Abel packs his bags and runs away from home with his little brother in tow with near disastrous results.

Production designer Brigitte Broch's rendering of a house that is falling apart in a neighborhood that is being abandoned adds to the intimate texture of the story. And Lynn Fainchtein's plaintive guitar score helps set an elegiac tone.

But the real treat here is watching a young natural like Ruiz-Esparza at work. There is no visible artifice between him and the character he's creating. In fact, the whole cast is fun to watch and delivers pitch perfect performances, thanks to Luna's guiding hand as a veteran actor taking a turn behind the camera.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production company: Canana Films, Mr. Mudd
Cast: Christopher Ruiz-Esparza, Jose Maria Yazpik, Karina Gidi, Carlos Aragon, Geraldo Ruiz-Esparza, Geraldine Alejandra, Gabino Rodriguez
Director: Diego Luna
Writer: Augusto Mendoza, Diego Luna
Producer: Pablo Cruz
Executive producers: Gael Garcia Bernal, Geminiano Pineda, John Malkovich, Lianne Halfon, Russell Smith
Director of photography: Patrick Murguia
Production designer: Brigitte Broch
Music: Lynn Fainchtein
Costumes: Anna Terrazas
Editor: Miguel Schverdfinger
Sales: Cinetic
No rating, 85 minutes