An official selection from last year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Abe” tells the fractured familial story of a half-Jewish, half-Palestinian boy from Brooklyn (Noah Schnapp). For Schnapp, Abe getting his family through a meal without resurrecting old feuds is more challenging than defeating Demogorgons on “Stranger Things.” Even his forward-thinking parents can’t protect their son from forebear pressures of tradition and religion.
No stranger to the documentary format, director Fernando Grostein Andrade emphasizes observational cinema and performance naturalism for his first narrative feature. Combining the culinary world of street food into Abe’s personal drama gives the film a modern texture reminiscent of reality cooking shows found on Bravo or Food Network. While not every story beat is the perfect bite, at least “Abe” has presentation down pat.
Abe’s mantra is the opposite of Dorothy’s from “The Wizard of Oz.” The 12-year-old prides himself on experimental fusion cooking but can’t seem to enjoy his domestic life when family is involved. An introvert whose sole friends are online followers of his cooking blog (that he began with his late savta), Abe is on the precipice of having a Bar Mitzvah. The dilemma he faces is honoring this Jewish rite of passage without disrespecting his Muslim half. His mother, Rebecca (Dagmara Dominczyk), is the daughter of Israeli immigrants while his father, Amir, (Aria Moayed) is a Palestinian atheist. Both sets of grandparents would prefer Abe to definitively select his faith of choice rather than merge the two like his progressive heart compels.
Abe won’t secure peace in the Middle East with the power of fusion recipes, but he hopes they can at least ensure civility during family dinners. Instead of honing his skills at a remedial summer cooking camp his parents place him in, Abe scurries off into the vastness of New York City to seek professional tutelage. Along his journey, he encounters Chico (Seu Jorge), a locally famous Brazilian street food chef whose signature dishes are inspired by his hometown of Bahia. Because of his undocumented status, Chico is at first reluctant to hire Abe as a free helping hand in exchange for lessons. However, Abe’s earnestness to learn overrides Chico’s fears. After a few quick “Karate Kid”-esque housekeeping tasks that preface the actual education, Abe discovers that top-quality cooking is as much an art as anything featured in a museum.
Even when some of the back-and-forth dissenting dialogue edges on rote, the principal actors on both sides of the religious divide do a marvelous job selling their fundamental arguments. “Breaking Bad’s” Mark Margolis plays Abe’s Jewish grandfather, Benjamin, who means well but is a little too self-righteous for his grandson’s benefit. On the other side of the spectrum are Palestinian grandparents Salim and Aida (respectively played by Tom Mardirosian and Salem Murphy). These two, particularly Aida, make it known loud and clear that there is only one correct divine path to follow to lead a true Muslim existence. As can be imagined, Abe reaches an emotional boiling point that threatens the pride he once held for being a product of multiculturalism.
Even though the crux of the drama erupts during seated meals much like “Real Housewives” confrontations, the best parts of “Abe” depict the carefree wonder of experimental cooking. Seeing Abe go through the motions of preparation until he achieves his desired final product is an utter joy to witness. Thanks to writers Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kaber – whose heritage and past experiences shape much of this dramedy – “Abe” is steeped in authenticity and isn’t afraid to confront uncomfortable points of contention to highlight how small they are compared to the happiness of a child. Delectable of all is how passionately multiculturalism is encouraged, with food here being the wrecking ball to shatter the walls of intolerance.