Choosing to make a film about a nine year-old boy with psychological and behavioural problems is something of a challenge for a first-time director, but Mexican actor Diego Luna seems to have a grasp of what he wants to achieve – and just as importantly what he wants to avoid – in his debut feature right from the word go. The most important thing, and it’s not easy in such a case, is to draw the viewer into Abel’s world and in some way get them to sympathise with his predicament, even if they don’t initially understand it. Luna achieves that visually and on a narrative level, focussing on the small details that are the perspective of a boy with a narrow view of the world, while letting us know that Abel (Christopher Ruíz-Esparza) can’t continue to live in this world. Unless he is somehow re-integrated into his family, he will be removed from the local hospital and taken into care in Mexico City.
The family – mother Cecilia (Karina Gidi), 15 year-old sister Selene (Geraldine Alejandra) and younger brother Paúl (Gerardo Ruíz-Esparza), father absent – try to adapt to Abel’s irregular moods and schedules, and gradually the audience does too, building up a picture of the issues at the same time that Abel and his family get to know and attempt to re-accommodate themselves with each other, work around the difficulties that lie on either side, and perhaps gain just a hint of where Abel’s psychological problems might lie. That proves to be a little more complicated than you might imagine. The clue is in the description of the family above. Who exactly is Abel’s father and where is he now? And would this have something to do with the fact that Abel, when he starts to come around, sees himself as the father of the family and starts acting like an adult?
What is surprising, when father Anselmo (José María Yazpik) does show up, is that Abel manages to take a familiar scene of family discord, but manages to avoid the more typical depictions of machismo, abuse and paternal abandonment that would be more typical of Latin and particularly Mexican cinema, and also avoid the expected depictions of women as victims and martyrs. Luna’s film doesn’t sidestep these issues – they are in evidence here as a part of the whole culture – but rather he finds a different angle to examine the effects on the family unit, and the wider implications thereby on Mexican society. There are no embittered women here, but rather ones that are strengthened by their experience and fiercely independent and protective of their families. If Abel’s behaviour becomes a little irritating then, and your tolerance of his bizarre and sometimes unsettling behaviour starts to wear thin a little bit quicker than it does for his family, well, that would seem to be intentional. In a way, Abel, while on the surface being a deceptively simple tale about a “different” child, uses the oddness of the situation to unsettle the viewer, force them to look at the make-up of the traditional family unit in a new way, and consider the deeper impact and distorted values that a dysfunctional family can have on a young mind.
Dealing with such fundamental and Oedipal matters still presents challenges that are difficult to depict in a relatively conventional movie, and Diego Luna struggles a little towards the end in keeping to a storyline that remains true to the psychological questions raised, while at the same time providing a satisfying narrative arc. While it hits all the right notes and sets the right tone between disturbing and sympathetic for the most part, the film‘s psychological underpinning of actions and behaviours does seem in danger of giving way to emotional button-pushing towards the end. Ultimately however, working on home ground here in Aguacalientes, the director’s own personal involvement and experience (Luna’s mother died when he was two years old, so the question of the role of a mother in a family unit would be a pertinent one) serve the film well, and the film never pretends that solutions are easy to come by or that the impact is anything but deep-rooted with longer-term consequences.
The trailer for Abel can be viewed here: