With movie theaters across the country closed for now (and with some potentially facing bankruptcy) due to all the stay-at-home measures in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, movie watching has fully moved indoors and online. Studios like Universal and Disney have fast-tracked the streaming release of such theatrical offerings as Onward and The Invisible Man while testing the waters of what bypassing theatrical altogether may look like with the straight-to-demand releases of Trolls World Tour and Artemis Fowl (originally scheduled by Disney for a summer release). At the same time, independent distributors like Magnolia Pictures, Kino Lorber, Film Movement and Oscilloscope have joined forces with independent movie houses nationwide, like Chicago’s Music Box Theatre and the Gene Siskel Film Center, to stream those titles that were scheduled to be released in April and May in those houses and split the proceeds with them. Other independent distributors have sent their offering straight to video-on-demand. And then, there’s cable: channels like HBO and Showtime are offering most of their streaming content for free for the next month or so. If the content supply before the pandemic exceeded the demand, the choice is now overwhelming. We now have a veritable glut.
What’s a film critic to do? Like any other critic worthy of the name has done for ages: seek out and highlight those titles that might be drowned by so much noise. One of those films is Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Grostein Andrade’s first narrative feature in English, Abe, distributed by Blue Fox Entertainment. The film, which had its world premiere last year as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s Kids section, is an unabashed throwback to those “after school” specials that were once part of America’s TV landscape. It makes for perfect family viewing during these sequestered times. With its images of New York City streets filled with people, of food trucks selling and serving food in packed open spaces, of family meals, Abe also taps into a certain sense of melancholy for those things we took for granted and have recently, and temporarily, lost.
For twelve-year-old Abe (Stranger Things’ Noah Schnapps), it isn’t easy being the only child of a Jewish-Palestinian couple. Both sides of the family claim him as their own, pressuring him to choose one culture and faith over the other. His secular parents call him Abraham, his Jewish relatives Avram and his Palestinian grandparents Ibrahim. Each family dinner, each get-together ends in ideological warfare. Abe finds his only comfort in his love for food and cooking, which he shares through his Tumblr-like blog Abecooks.
He dreams of bringing both sides of the family together through food; in one of his online searches Abe discovers the work of Afro-Brazilian chef Chico (Seu Jorge) who is shaking the local foodie scene with his forward-thinking fusion pop-up “Mix It Up.” As is usual with this mentor-student storyline, their first encounter does not go well, although the door is left open for a future meet cute. Abe walks right through it when he skips the pretty basic cooking summer camp his parents enrolled him in and goes to Chico’s kitchen, begging for the opportunity to learn from him. His education begins at the bottom but, after preparing lunch for his coworkers, Chico fully takes him under his wing. The story momentarily loses focus and momentum once his parents find out what he’s been up to and punish him; in its rush to get to the big dramatic set piece, Grostein Andrade’s story and Lameece Issaq’s and Jacob Kade’s script leave a significant part of Abe’s life unexplored. Even his parent’s announcement that they will separate is treated as an afterthought.
And yet, that set piece, a Thanksgiving dinner where Abe aims to bring both families together through his culinary fusion of both cultures, is so powerful, so engrossing, that you willingly forgive the film that missed opportunity. It briefly subverts the notion that food can bring us together: some wounds are too deep to heal. Grostein Andrade builds an unbearable tension as each meal is served by Abe and the arguments between both sides of the family grow louder. Schnapp, who throughout the whole movie delivers a performance that beautifully balances youthful enthusiasm, curiosity and even cockiness with sadness and doubt, tears your heart out in this sequence as he sees his dream of bringing both families together crumble in front of him, each word, each insult, weighing on him.
Abe may be the film’s protagonist, but its soul belongs to Seu Jorge’s Chico. 2019 was a great year for the singer-songwriter-actor best known for his roles in City of God and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. But while we will have to wait a bit longer to see his critically acclaimed performance as Brazilian activist and revolutionary Carlos Marighella in Wagner Moura’s biopic, his mellifluous bass tones, his too cool for school charisma and his gravitas in Abe more than makes up for it. One only wishes that there had been more scenes between him and Schnapp.
Winner of the World Cinema Directing Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Lucía Garibaldi’s feature debut, The Sharks, is a much different coming-of-age story than Abe. In fact, I would even hesitate to categorize it as such. The film’s protagonist. 14-year-old Rosina (Romina Betancur, a non-professional making her acting debut) is suffering neither angst nor a sense of loss as she faces that void that separate childhood from adulthood so characteristic of the genre. In fact, Rosina is an enigma: the middle child of a working-class Uruguayan family, she detaches herself from her surroundings, her cold, dead stare treating everything and everyone as if they were rats in an experiment. She is impulsive, her actions borderline malicious as she tests and breaks down the boundaries between right and wrong.
The movie opens with Rosina fleeing from the camera as it follows her down a road; she turns back, scared, the first of two times she expresses a full emotion in the film (the other being the film’s final shot as she bikes towards the camera, this time in pursuit, after committing what could be a potentially deadly act). We soon find out why she is running away: her father is pursuing her for accidentally hurting her older sister in the eye. Rosina jumps into the beach and sees a predator’s fin. Her claims to have seen a shark are dismissed by her father but soon given credibility by the discovery of a sea lion’s mangled body in the beach’s shore.
Rosina doesn’t care much for family life, constantly bickering with her older sister, treating her little brother with indifference and shrugging off her mother’s attempts to open a business as they, like the rest of the town’s inhabitants, deal with the lack of running water, an irony given that they live close to the beach. To keep her out of trouble, her father gives Rosina a job as part of his maintenance crew. One of the crew (or I should say, his bulging parts) catches her eye: Joselo, a fisherman a couple of years older than her. A first encounter between the two ends disastrously; Joselo loses interest, opting for activities far more age-appropriate like chasing girls his own age. Rosina doesn’t take the hint and begins to stalk Joselo, subtly escalating her actions against him.
Small actions, gestures, words left unsaid even the media consumed by the characters matter in The Sharks more than big actions: the web and media savvy Rosina helping her mother copy and paste a graphic, her irritatingly turning on and off a song Joselo likes on her smartphone, even the sexually frank conversations between her sister and her friends. Garibaldi’s restrained and understated narrative approach evokes the lazy, almost somnolent vibe of the resort they work for and live in while hinting at the sexual and violence undercurrents. There were times, however, that I felt this approach almost undermined the film’s entire narrative: it denies us any psychological insight, any empathy not only towards Rosina but to all the characters.
In its approach, The Sharks reminded me at times of Lucrecia Martel’s extraordinary feature debut La Ciénaga. But Martel’s film had a specific authorial point-of-view; yes, she was dissecting a specific social milieu but she treated her characters with far more empathy. It understood what drove them to act the way they do, how the environment influences that behavior to the point that when tragedy strikes, it feels like a gut punch, no matter how elliptically she alludes to it. Garibaldi’s episodic structure and Betancur’s unnerving performance are, in comparison, Brechtian devices deployed to keep us at a remove. We are forced to coldly observe these characters much like Rosina does. The world may be her microscope; her world is ours.
Abe will be available On Demand and in most streaming services Friday, April 17th. The Sharks is currently available On Demand and on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Vudu and FandangoNOW