Those familiar with the name Diego Luna will most likely associate him with his breakthrough performance as Tenoch Iturbide, in Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También (2001). Having recently appeared alongside Sean Penn in Milk (2008) Luna is now plying his trade as director, with his debut feature Abel (2010) receiving critical acclaim in abundance.
Part drama, part black comedy, the film tells the bizarre story of Abel (Christopher Ruíz-Esparza) a nine-year old boy suffering from psychological problems, seemingly brought on by the abandonment of his father. These problems result in him being submitted to a psychiatric home, as he refuses to talk or communicate with anyone. However, when his mother pleads with the doctors to let her take him home, things take a dark turn upon his return.
Although Abel regains his voice and starts to communicate with his family agsin, he does so in a manner befitting the tone of his absent father; shouting and scolding his sister in an extremely aggressive manner. These events culminate in the return of Abel’s father, whose childish and reckless behaviour mimics that of his son’s recent actions.
While Abel may not quite fulfil its potential as a truly great debut, it certainly possesses enough quality and strengths to render it a thoroughly enjoyable film. The performances from the central characters are exquisite, especially that of Ruíz-Esparza as Abel. For such a young actor it is quite remarkable how he manages to preserve his childish naivety, whilst providing moments of genuine menace and threat when taking on his father’s persona. The fact that he is also a non-professional actor makes this achievement even more impressive.
Luna also approaches his subject matter with great care and attention. His modern day telling of an age-old fable regarding the absence of a father figure and the subsequent hurdles and difficulties that arise as a result is pitched effortlessly; at no point lecturing or preaching, yet allowing an insightful view of a family suffering from a father’s abandonment.
If there is one criticism to be levelled at Abel it is the occasionally laboured pace with which the film reaches its conclusion. At times, the narrative progression feels slightly uneven, yet these are only minor issues with an otherwise glowing debut. If this is what Luna can create from behind the camera at his first attempt, one can only look forward with anticipation to what is yet to come.