“Abe,” newly arriving on pay cable systems and streaming platforms, is one of those family films you don’t need a family to enjoy. It’s about families, though, their blessings and curses, and at a time when coronavirus and quarantine have forced relatives to live apart from each other, the movie serves as a reminder of how much sustenance can be found in getting everyone together.
Also how much agita.
“Abe” is about eating as well, with a 12-year-old title character (Noah Schnapp) who’s a burgeoning foodie obsessed with flavors and fusions. No surprise, he lives in Brooklyn. The son of a Jewish mother, Rebecca (Dagmara Dominczyk), and an Arab father, Amir (Arian Moayed), the boy is Avraham to one set of grandparents and Ibrahim to the other. To his parents and himself, he’s just Abe. Or as he says to his new friend Chico (Seu Jorge), “I’m half Palestinian Muslim, half Israeli Jewish, half Brooklyn American. And Gryffindor.”
Who’s Chico? A Brazilian-born chef who’s big on Instagram and who runs a flotilla of food trucks out of a Sunset Park kitchen. Abe, who has his own Insta-food feed featuring photos of his hit-and-miss culinary attempts, has been signed up for a summer camp cooking class that, to his disgust, is strictly for newbies. Without telling his parents, he hops on the subway every day to work as a scullery boy for Chico and his crew. It’s a start.
Directed by the Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Grostein Andrade with what looks like a UN subcommittee of screenwriters, “Abe” is high-spirited and fully felt, in tune with its gangly hero’s lust for umami and in touch with the cultural push-pull he endures every time his extended clan sits down for Sunday dinner. The Jewish grandpa (Mark Margolis) is a Holocaust survivor and a recent widower; his Palestinian opposite number (Tom Mardirosian) is an academic and an op-ed firebrand married to a stiff-backed traditionalist (Salem Murphy).
Neither side really approves of Rebecca and Amir’s marriage. Everyone loves Abe. And everyone wants Abe to follow the spiritual path he feels is best for him, which of course is the one they follow. Why wouldn’t a boy want to dive into the world of food, where mixing cuisines and cultures gives you, at worst, indigestion rather than an identity crisis?
“Abe” has been directed with an abundance of style that’s sometimes an overabundance — the editing is a little hyperactive and the boy’s voice-over narration is heavy with “#hashtag this” and "#hashtag that” in the opening half hour. But it settles down, the way a growing kid with a passion can, and becomes a tart, empathetic study of a young man seeking his place. Food completes Abe; his family tears him apart — why can’t he fold together recipes and flavors from both sides and create an interfaith Thanksgiving? The filmmakers are wise enough to understand that such a meal might not solve deep-rooted divisions, but they’re also hopeful enough to suggest that love for an upcoming generation might.
It’s a movie of heart and craft rather than art and depth, fairly blind to Abe’s privileged Park Slope existence and inclined to view Chico as a gruffly exotic mentor rather than granting him a life of his own. Jorge is a major music star in his home country who has popped up in Wes Anderson’s films and elsewhere, and he’s nobody’s magical Brazilian; that said, the viewer is directed to the terrific 2017 drama “En El Séptimo Día” for a richer and more realistic portrait of the Sunset Park immigrants who make deliveries to people like Abe’s parents.
“Abe” is more than fine for what it sets out to do, and you feel its open-heartedness in the characters of the mother and father, sophisticated New Yorkers who naively believe their affection for each other will paper over centuries of mistrust. It can’t, and, as noted, neither can food, but the preparation and consumption of a meal — its smells and textures, the small explosions on the tongue — have their own unique joys. Andrade conspires with cinematographer Blasco Giurato and food stylist Michelli Knauer to showcase those joys to their utmost. A great measure of “Abe”’s success is that it made me hungry. More than that, it’s the first movie in quite some time to make me smile.
Directed by Fernando Grostein Andrade. Written by Andrade, Lameece Issaq, Jacob Kader, Christopher Vogler. Starring Noah Schnapp, Seu Jorge, Dagmara Dominczyk, Arian Moayed. Available for rental on pay cable systems and most streaming platforms. 85 minutes. Unrated (transnational family tensions, bold choices in cuisine)