Abe, like the movie bearing his name, may be a little too ambitious. You see, his mom’s descended from Israeli Jews and his Dad’s family are Palestinian Muslims. Family dinners consist of fights about who invented hummus, whether or not Abe should have a Bar Mitzvah, and “Happy Birthday” sung in three different languages. But the 12-year-old aspiring chef thinks that if he can design a meal, the perfect fusion of Israeli and Palestinian flavors, it will make his family forget generations of conflict. It’s a tall order for a junior chef, and an even taller one for a kids’ movie. Unfortunately, “Abe” packs in so many flavors that it’s hard to taste anything.
Directed by Fernando Grostein Andrade, “Abe” stars Noah Schnapp (“Stranger Things”) as the eponymous 12-year-old. The film opens on Abe’s twelfth birthday, for which he baked his own cake. Unfortunately, as he explains on his blog, it didn’t go so well. Abe narrates much of the film in voiceover to an imaginary audience of blog readers, who respond with generic barbs and some encouragement. The crude visuals of Abe’s blog feel a bit hackneyed, which might take audiences out of the world of the film. It wouldn’t be as alienating if it had more import to the story, but it’s just a vehicle for the the first person narration, which comes off as cheesy at best.
Through Abe’s computer searches, we see him researching Ramadan, Bar Mitzvahs, fasting, and keeping kosher. When he asks each grandparent about these things (in scenes that would’ve been stronger without the search bar preface), no one can give him very satisfying answers. His atheist father thinks religion is a hoax (“Religion, man, it just divides us”), and his mother is ambivalent. Though they should be the heart of the film, the familial arguments about religion are so simplistic and heavy handed that they fall flat.
“You can try both, but you cannot be both. You have to choose,” one relative tells him of his two religions. To which his father replies: “He doesn’t have to choose because we choose for him, and we choose nothing.”
Blue Fox Entertainment
After discovering fusion food at a Brooklyn market, Abe hatches an escape plan from his lame summer cooking class by pestering a Brazilian chef into training him. Chico (Seu George) is gruff at first, only allowing Abe to take out the trash. Like a sushi chef working his way up to making the rice, Abe learns kitchen life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Still, he manages to impress the boss with his lemon-thyme lollipops. One day, he brings in his grandma’s marinated lamb and he and Chico make shawarma tacos. Get it? Fusion.
Rather than hitting the predictable notes of unconventional teacher helps kid find himself, the relationship with Chico feels under-explored. Chico is gruff with Abe, softening later, but the script never gives them a full scene to connect. There are no fun scenes or montages of Chico teaching Abe new skills; the trash gets all that glory. The cooking talk is overly specific at times (Abe is adamant that cream of tartar can be used as a replacement for baking soda), and curiously absent from the kitchen scenes with Chico. Abe’s Middle Eastern feast comes together with yummy visuals, but very little explanation of how he tweaked the recipes to reflect his two cultures. The resulting family argument is similarly long on power but short on specifics.
The film is strong musically; the upbeat Latin tracks from Andrade’s native Brazil add some much-needed energy. The shots of Brooklyn in the summertime will stoke any New Yorker’s nostalgia these days, and since cooking has become a national pastime, the same goes for the foodie scenes. Andrade’s direction imbues Abe’s world with the flavor and texture lacking in the script.
“Abe” has its heart in the right place, and took a big swing with an enticing concept. To say Israel/Palestine is a complicated subject would be a wild understatement, and it’s noble to want to engage kids in the conflict in an entertaining way. But “Abe” manages to simultaneously talk down to its young audience while not teaching much outside the basics. With a more streamlined script, or even fewer characters and more developed relationships, “Abe” could have made a real impact. As it stands, there are too many cooks in the kitchen.
“Abe” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the Sundance Kids section. It is available on demand and digital on Friday, April 17.