For a feature debut, this is an impressive piece of work: elusive, dark and finally moving.
Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal's sparring buddy in Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mamá También often cites as inspiration the holistic influence of his father, a famous Mexican set designer. He is now a devoted dad himself, and yet his feature-directing debut is an ode to absent paternity.
Our vessel is the eponymous Abel, a disturbed nine-year-old returning home from two years in a psychiatric ward. He has refused to talk and capable of self-harm, but his doctor has observed tentative signs of improvement, as long as the adults in Abel’s life are patient.
Abel’s father is absent in the USA, seemingly a common problem in Mexico, and his caring and careworn mum must handle his re-adaption to home life alone.
She is determined to prevent him from suffering another breakdown, so when he suddenly starts to talk like his father, adopting the disciplinary role of man of the house, she decides to play along and sustain his illusion.
It’s a strange set-up, and yet Abel retains its pace and interest by darting deftly between unrefined satire and a confident melodrama that never slides into hyperbole.
Luna does not yet possess the social-realist capacities of his mentor Alfonso Cuaron, and at times his direction feels reticent; the editing occasionally forced and harried. But his film is buoyed by the extraordinary performance of non-professional actor Christopher Ruíz-Esparza, who plays our hero.
Ruíz-Esparza shifts in and out of reality with barely discernible gradations of emotion. For a feature debut, this is an elusive, dark and finally moving piece of work.
An important figure in the globalisation of Mexican cinema, what does Luna have to say for himself?
Initially confounding but increasingly magnetic.
Abel may mark the beginning of a major new Latin American voice.