There's something about foodie films that always seem to charm their audiences. Whether it's the colours on the screen, the explosion of flavours, or simply the stories they tell, a few things remain consistent: firstly, that food is an expression and representation of culture, and secondly, that food brings people together. 'Abe' is no different - the only problem being that the cultures our protagonist wants to respect and explore, along with the family he wants to bring together, always seem to clash.
Noah Schnapp (TV's 'Stranger Things') is Abraham on to his mother's side, and Ibrahim on his father's, but taking the titular role in Fernando Grostein Andradre's directorial debut, to us and his social media followers, he is Abe. With an Israeli mother Rebecca (Dagmara Domińczyk, 'The Count of Monte Cristo') and a Palestinian father Amir (Arian Moayed, TV's 'Succession'), Abe's parents and grandparents are constantly at odds over how he should be brought up, including what religion he should follow and what he should be cooking. His passion lies in the kitchen, and that is where he opts to pursue both of his opposing cultures, as he believes it will bring his family closer together.
Eager to learn all there is to know about "food fusion", Abe tracks down Brazilian Chef Chico (Seu Jorge, 'City of God') and begins to train with him instead of attending the summer cooking camp his parents enrolled him in. Ultimately, under the direction of Chico, Abe is desperate to prove to his family that they all have a role to play in his life, and all are equally important, because it's the mixture of food and flavours that will bring people together.
Speaking at his Sundance debut in the Kids Category, Grostein Andrade feels that today's world is forever growing distant, and moving forward, food will play a vital role in bringing people together. It's the crux of his film, and he chooses to embed this theme amongst Middle Eastern politics - a daring choice. He clearly did his research, albeit basic, but enough to bring a balanced and unbiased approach, which is okay considering this film is really aimed at a younger audience, merely serving to start a dialogue, not solve a peace crisis. Unfortunately, while the result is admirable and sweet, 'Abe' just lacks that polish and maturity to make it altogether more welcoming.
The genre tropes and three-act structure are a little too predictable and pedestrian, preventing this film from exploring my main takeaway, which is that kids have struggles growing up, it's not easy, but it's amazing that you can have an outlet to harness the pains and make something great from it. There was too much focus on how the food plays this role, but not enough on why it's an important role. It's fitting and significant that Abe is on the cusp of turning 12, where in Jewish culture you are entering adolescence, but this fact is swept over and barely utilised. Instead, we get very one-dimensional characters, with morals and lessons a little too "Hollywood". It's difficult to ride the bumps and waves of an emotional arc when the core is lacking.
I want to take this opportunity to mention something about the ending, so if you want to go in spoiler-free, skip this paragraph, but I feel it's important in understanding why I couldn't connect as much as I wanted to. I really wish more filmmakers would take a note out of the 'Mrs. Doubtfire' book when it comes to family turmoils. Happy endings do not have to mean happy endings. Let me explain. There is nothing wrong with parents disagreeing, and perhaps ultimately growing apart. In fact, it is far more common than not these days. So why do so many kids films shy away from divorce? In the context of this film, it made sense for Abe's parents to split, and it felt so cheap that they stayed together because their son made Palestinian felafels. Audiences should be challenged, no matter their age, and it's possible to live happily without the happily ever after fairytale.
While the result is admirable and sweet, 'Abe' just lacks that polish and maturity to make it altogether more welcoming.
Okay, moving on. Despite all this, there are genuinely sweet and touching moments that you can't help but smile for. We are so happy for Abe that he found his outlet, and we are rooting for him all the way as he tries to make the ultimate Thanksgiving dinner for his family. The extended family - and parents too - come across as pretty rubbish people, so we really sympathise with Abe as he tries to bring everyone together. The food throughout this film is photographed so beautifully, often in direct contrast to how cinematographer Blasco Giurato shoots the characters on screen. It's clear the contrast is purposeful with the hope of giving extra impetus to the meaning of the cuisine, but it instead ends up feeling a little flat when audiences are supposed to sympathise and care for the family. I found myself looking forward to the shots of the food and not so much the interaction of the characters, and I can't see how or why that would be the intention.
Noah Schnapp is very good at absorbing the blows his family deals him, balancing a child's innocence with a teenager's angst in a wholly believable and melancholic manner. The older actors could have maybe taken a note or two from him, with their performances feeling very one-dimensional, and getting the sense that they never believed in the scripts they were given. Domińczyk tries her best to be the emotional driving force, but alas, she is given too little to work with.
All in all, 'Abe' is still a very sweet exploration of what it means to grow up amongst a culture clash. What it lacks in weight, it makes up for in charm and great looking food. Aimed predominately at a younger audience, there is plenty for them to sink their teeth into and hopefully learn from, but for a more mature viewing experience, there just isn't enough meat to turn this meal into a banquet.