Take a good look at that photo above and tell me if it doesn't look like Diego Luna is having a ball directing Abel. You might know Luna from his small but memorable role as Enrique Cruz in Spielberg's The Terminal, or his turn as Harvey Milk's lover Jack Lira in Gus Van Sant's Milk. But at Sundance 2010 he was premiering Abel, his first effort as a director. The result is a charming film about a boy with a problem, and the family who struggles in the wake it creates.
Abel hasn't dealt well with the loss of his father. He's been housed in a psychiatric hospital in a near catatonic state while his younger brother and teenaged sister continue to live life at home. He often goes into a trance-like state and draws spirals on his palm. When Abel's mother comes to collect him, he doesn't respond to her at all. She takes him home anyhow, but things do not improve. Just when it seems like something has to give, something does. It's this change that the family has a hard time dealing with, but it seems to be the only thing that can help Abel.
There's a line in Superman: The Movie where Jor-El (Marlon Brando) tells young Kal-El in his spaceship, "The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son," and that's exactly what happens here. Abel starts wearing his father's clothes, following his father's routines, and speaking like his father. At first, the family is perplexed, yet goes along with it, because he's finally talking and interacting with them, but when his mother later takes him to a local doctor, he tells her not to confront him because he needs to get this out of his system.
This creates a myriad of problems, and how far is too far? A young boy pretending to be a man is one thing, but where do you draw the line? Abel actually does become a father figure for his younger brother (or son), and when he sees how sad his older sister (or daughter) is after breaking up with her boyfriend, he takes steps to correct things. At first this is incredibly cute and whimsical, but there's also a strong undercurrent of discomfort. After all, he sleeps with his mother (or wife), and one evening he lays on top of her (fully clothed), then rolls over and pretends to smoke a cigarette and assumes she's pregnant. It's both cute, and a little creepy.
The other problem is that Abel's father is not dead, as you suspect while watching the film, but rather you come to find out he's been living and working in Texas, complete with a girlfriend and a new baby. He shared a few drinks with the doctor in town, only to become enraged to find out that the wife he left behind has been sleeping with other men. He confronts her, only to find out what's being going on with his son. As he tries to wrest control of the boy away from his estranged wife, Abel and his little brother go missing.
This film would sound strange on paper, and probably wouldn't work under many circumstances, but what holds it together is a very powerful performance from the young Christopher Ruíz-Esparza (real-life brother Gerardo Ruíz-Esparza plays his brother in the film). He holds the attention of the audience with every unspoken moment. You actually believe that he believes he has become the father. It's impressive that a boy so young could do this so well, and this is a tribute to Luna as the director as well.
Abel is one of those Sundance films that you might see on the art house circuit, which is unfortunate because it is much deserving of a wider audience. He revels in the life of a family in Mexico, and rather that saying "Gee, look how bad these people have it. Wouldn't it be great if they could be saved", it shows you a family, warts and all. Terrific storytelling.