Brazilian documentarian Fernando Grostein Andrade’s first narrative feature is an upbeat, lighthearted YA drama centered on a teen undergoing an identity crisis while curious about his family’s Middle Eastern culinary heritage.
If there’s another country as geographically and culturally diverse as the United States, it’s definitely Brazil – with mixes of Africa, European, Asian and native influences. Brazilian documentarian-turned-narrative filmmaker Fernando Grostein Andrade teams up with a pair of Palestinian-American playwrights to craft his vision to life: Abe (played by Stranger Things‘s Noah Schnapp) is a young man living in New York who is Palestinian on his father’s side and Jewish on his mother’s side. The Sao Paulo filmmaker uses his background and heritage to explore what it means to be considered “mixed” and explores the notion of identity through culture.
Drawing on his own personal backgrounds (Andrade is Jewish on one side of his family and Catholic on the other), he serves up an enticing dramedy that celebrates the potential of multicultural cuisine to unite people from different traditions, even in the face of opposition. The most ironic thing about the film is that with its weighty themes and strong political undertones, the film premiered and screened in the Sundance Kids section – most likely due to the star and style of the tone being that of a family friendly film.
The sort of intransigence that is evident in such a political conversation can pose all kinds of issues in a politically (and religiously) divided family – birthdays and holidays tend to be especially stressful. Abe, born Abraham Solomen-Odeh, is an only child whose Israeli and Palestinian grandparents constantly argue. His agnostic lawyer mother, Rebecca (Dagmara Dominczyk), and agnostic lawyer father, Amir (Arian Moayed), don’t help in keeping the peace within the family. Dragging Middle Eastern politics into a Brooklyn household may seem contrived, but Andrade makes this setup effective by interweaving conflicting cultural values into the context of the American immigrant experience.
Abe continuously searches for a catalyst that could override decades of ingrained bias and bring his family together without acrimony. He wonders if somehow the flavors and foods of his heritage’s homeland might hold some plausible clues. Skipping out on his summer cooking camp for newbies, Abe stumbles upon the kitchen where Chico (Seu Jorge) cooks his fusion cuisine before unveiling it at the pop restaurant in the Night Market where Abe first met him. He convinces Chico that he’s the ideal student of fusion cuisine in the hopes of excelling in it and being able to win over his new mentor and his family.
Andrade and his two Palestinian-American screenwriters (Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader) seem less worried about their transparent manipulation of the film’s characters than in setting Abe up for a transformative experience that draws both his Jewish and Muslim identities. When they focus on Abe’s point of view they come close to capturing the head-spinning variety of virtual and actual stimuli that clamor for the teenager’s attention. Blasco Giurato’s cinematography sticks to a realistic style, enlived by occasional animated sequences and brief video clips to capture the YA side of the film.
Schnapp, pivoting from the sci-fi horror genre he’s known far, delivers an appealing performance that is grounded in the titular character’s struggle to connect with his family. Issaq and Kader sometimes write in behavior that may not always seem to align with the personality that you’d expect from Abe, but these inconsistencies reveal Abe’s gradual growth as he stretches beyond his comfort zone to pursue his own goals and ambitions.
Although he’s infrequently seen outside of Brazilian productions, famed musician/actor Jorge demonstrates his artistic versatility, adapting to Chico’s position as chef-philosopher while mentoring Abe. It’s a role that relies on his smooth and sweet sounding English as it does on his soulfully sincere counsel to a confused teen with enormous potential.
“Abe” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the Kids Category. At press time, the film is to be distributed by Paris Filmes on a date TBD.
Director: Fernando Grostein Andrade.
Screenwriter: Lameece Issaq, Jacob Kader.
Music by: Guilherme Amabis.
Cinematography: Blasco Giurato.
Production: Spray, Gullane.
Distributor: Paris Filmes.
With: Noah Schnapp, Seu Jorge, Dagmara Dominczyk, Arian Moayed, Mark Margolis, Salem Murphy, Tom Mardirosian, Daniel Oreskes.