out of Five
Running time: 85
Enjoyable, off-beat drama that's both darkly funny and emotionally engaging, thanks to assured direction from Diego Luna and a terrific central performance from young Christopher Ruiz-Esparza.
What's it all about?
Directed and co-written by Diego Luna, the film is set in Aguascalientes, Mexico and stars Christopher Ruiz-Esparza as Abel, a troubled nine-year-old boy who's spent two years in a hospital mental ward without speaking. When his mother, Cecilia (Karina Gidi), brings him home, he suddenly starts behaving like his own missing father, acting like a stern parent to both his older sister Selene (Geraldine Alejandra) and his younger brother Paul (Christopher's own brother, Gerardo Ruiz-Esparza).
At first, Cecilia is delighted to have Abel speaking again and encourages Selene and Paul to go along with Abel's delusion, for fear of him suffering a relapse. However, when Abel's estranged father (Jose-Maria Yazpik) returns out of the blue, things quickly get out of hand.
Christopher Ruiz-Esparza is terrific in the lead role, delivering a performance that is by turns charming and unsettling. He also has strong, believable chemistry with Alejandra and Gerado (both excellent), while Gidi is superb as Cecilia, anxiously torn between relief and mounting concern.
Luna's control of the tone is assured throughout, never allowing the blackly comic elements to distract from the underlying seriousness of the story. This is particularly evident in the scene where Abel attempts to fulfil his husbandly duties in his mother's bedroom (without really knowing what they are); in other hands this could have been excruciating, but Luna handles the scene in sensitive fashion, drawing nervous, awkward laughter, but also allowing for a touch of sweetness.
The script is excellent, refusing to spell out everything for the audience while also making subtle but effective comments about absent fathers and serving as a twisted coming-of-age story. In addition, Luna makes strong use of his authentic locations, grounding the film in a down-to-earth reality that works well.
There are several excellent scenes, withh highlights including Selene taking Abel to school for Father's Day celebrations (echoes of Lars and the Real Girl); Abel disapproving of Selene's choice of boyfriend; and a nail-biting climactic set-piece involving a swimming pool. There's also a cleverly designed score from Alejandro Castanos.
Abel is a superbly written, impressively directed comedy-drama that's by turns darkly funny and deeply moving. It also marks Diego Luna out as a directing talent to watch. Highly recommended.