Saturday, February 2, 2019

Sundance ’19: Abe

If only they had more fusion cuisine at Taba, maybe then there would be peace in the Middle East. Or perhaps not. A thirteen-year-old aspiring chef in Brooklyn tries to bring his mixed Israeli-Palestinian family together with food, but their divisions might be too deep for his culinary efforts to heal, despite some help from Brazil in Fernando Grostein Andrade’s Abe, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Abe prefers “Abe,” but his family calls him Abraham, Avraham, Avi, or Ibrahim, depending on which side is doing the talking. His mother and her parents are Jewish Israeli, his paternal grandparents are Palestinian Muslims, and his father is a “plague on both your houses” atheist. As you might guess, family gatherings are super awkward. Frankly, they bicker so much, they never enjoy Abe’s cooking.

For a thirteen-year-old, Abe is pretty good at the basics (or so he thinks), but he needs a bit of coaching when it comes to more ambitious creations. Chico Catuaba is the chef he has in mind to mentor him. The Bahia native once had his own restaurant, but now sells his unique brand of Brazilian-Jamaican fusion cuisine in his pop-up kitchens throughout Brooklyn. Initially, Catuaba is suspicious of Abe and the potential child labor legal problems he might bring, but the young teen’s sincerity wins him over. However, he will make sure Abe pays his dues first, before giving him real kitchen responsibilities.

Andrade’s film boasts a lithe and lively Brazilian soundtrack, featuring co-star Seu Jorge on two tracks (“Imigrantes” and Veloso’s “Meia Lua Inteira”), Tulipa Ruiz on “Sal E Amor,” and musical supervisor Jaques Morelenbaum’s solo cello arrangements of Jobim’s “Brigas Numcas Mais” and “Samba de Uma Noto So.” It sounds fantastic and the food looks delicious, so it is easy to forgive the formulaic aspects of Lameece Issaq & Jacob Kader’s screenplay. In fact, Andrade executes the culinary coming-of-age tale with a light touch, dialing down the obvious clichés and potentially fraught politics as much as possible. Instead, he focuses on the diverse, likable ensemble of characters.

Noah Schnapp from Stranger Things is appealingly energetic and earnest as Abe. However, the perfectly cast Seu Jorge frequently steals the show as Catuaba. Anyone who has seen him perform knows he has serious charisma and a voice that could take work away from James Earl Jones, but he also wields a kitchen knife with authority. As Abe’s parents, Dagmara Dominczyk and Arian Moayed also convincingly look and sound like a loving couple, whose relationship is under strain and stress. As a bonus, the great character actor Mark Margolis adds some crusty flair as Abe’s Jewish grandfather, Benjamin.

Abe is a very nice little movie with a terrific soundtrack. The notion of refracting the Middle Eastern conflict through the microcosm of a Brooklyn family might sound like a ham-fisted, finger-wagging cinematic lecture, but Andrade mostly makes it work, by not forcing it too hard. Recommended for fans of foodie movies and Seu Jorge, Abe screens again today (2/2) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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