A 9-year-old boy’s bizarre fugue state is played for laughs in “Abel,” a winning if somewhat creepy-around-the-edges feature debut for Mexican star Diego Luna. Psychological transference becomes a kooky form of juvenile therapy in this broken-family comic drama, which finds Luna in a mood both playful and serious, suspended somewhere between childlike naivete and adult reality. While mileage is sure to vary, the pic is affectionate and funny enough for much of its 112-minute running time to hold good-taste objections at bay, and local crowd-pleaser status could translate to a solid theatrical profile abroad.
Never quite right ever since his dad abruptly walked out two years ago, Abel (Christopher Ruiz-Esparza) is brought home from a psychiatric ward by his mother, Cecilia (Karina Gidi). Settling back into the family manse in Aguascalientes, Mexico, Abel initially seems like a kid out of a bad-seed horror movie, saying nothing and freaking out his older sister, Selene (Geraldine Alejandra), and younger brother, Paul (Gerardo Ruiz-Esparza), but Cecilia urges them to do their best to help Abel readjust.
But Cecilia, Selene and Paul are the ones who have to readjust when Abel finally opens his mouth to speak — a moment deployed for maximum comic effect at the 17-minute mark. Suddenly behaving like the man of the house, Abel critiques Selene’s homework (and interrogates her b.f.), becomes a father figure to Paul and, in a scene both amusing and skin-crawling, climbs with innocent determination into Cecilia’s bed.
Cecilia encourages everyone to humor Abel (“Don’t fight your brother”), and the pic maintains a buoyant enough comic tone to put the viewer’s questions of plausibility on hold and to disarm those who might feel uncomfortable about laughing at a child’s psychological condition. Just when it seems the boy’s cute delusion can’t go any further, Cecilia’s long-absent husband (Jose Maria Yazpik) returns home, ratcheting up both the comedy and the dramatic tension as the family’s stability, though superficially restored, begins to feel even more precarious.
While “Abel” stumbles in its final stretch, with a manipulative, cross-cutting climax and one ending too many, it reps an assured and auspicious directing debut for Luna (whose numerous producing credits include “Sin nombre,” “I’m Gonna Explode” and “Deficit,” the first film helmed by Luna’s “Y tu mama tambien” co-star, Gael Garcia Bernal).
Performances are consistently strong; young Christopher Ruiz-Esparza is well up to the demands of the deliberately inexpressive title role, and establishes a strong bond with Gidi as well as a touching onscreen rapport with real-life brother Gerardo. Yazpik lends Abel’s ne’er-do-well dad a believably human dimension.
Pic looks great, as d.p. Patrick Murguia’s widescreen compositions and tracking shots bring a controlled sense of visual sweep to the family’s large and chaotic household, pleasingly detailed by production designer Brigitte Broch. Alejandro Castanos’ score is far from subtle but serves to unify the film’s multiple moods.