Food is one of the most incredible and accessible ways to bring people together. It is one of the things that brings all of us pleasure, regardless of background, faith, sexuality, and gender. We can express who we are, show people we love them, and connect through cooking. At its core, Abe is a film about a kid who wants to bring his family together, and who loves food. It is a love letter to the New York street food scene. Director Fernando Andrade takes on a whole melange of issues in this sweet, heartfelt coming of age drama.
Abe (Noah Schnapp), sometimes Avraham, sometimes Ibrahim is a New York, food loving tween on the eve of his 13th birthday. Food is his passion, his life, but it’s hard to go about the business of figuring out who you are when one half of your family is Israeli Jewish, and the other is Palestinian Muslim. Through an internet deep dive Abe discovers Brazilian chef Chico (Seu Jorge) cooking up a storm of Afro-Brazilian fusion food at his Mix it Up street food stall. After a particularly tense family meal, Abe sneaks out in search of Chico and somehow convinces the reluctant chef to hire him as an intern. And so Abe’s double life begins. By day he works as a kitchen porter in Chico’s prep kitchen, by night he tries to follow a mix of his family’s teachings to keep them happy. This culminates in Abe’s attempt to unite his family through an elaborate Thanksgiving meal influenced by food from across the Middle East. It’s a story of culture classes, identity, and discovery as Abe fights to find a way to straddle the warring parts of his heritage.
It’s easy to be sceptical about portrayals of a family with such contradictory identities. In fact how easily Abe’s extended family lapse into the age old argument— it’s hard to believe how his parents were allowed to get married in the first place. But putting that aside, writer Lamecee Issaq and director Andrade manage to walk this particular tightrope rather successfully. Neither party feels like the ‘bad guy’, which is crucial to the film’s success. If they had moved any further to one side of the debate, Abe’s journey would have been lost in a battle of biblical proportions.
Noah Schnapp leads the cast with a mostly strong performance. His personal attachment to the source material is evident as he works to make us root for Abe’s multicultural feast to succeed. It is also refreshing to see a budding chef whose experiments don’t quite work. Too often we see stories of child prodigies who nail it on their first try, so it is great to see Chico turn his nose up at Abe’s ramen-taco or hear his dad point out that the turkey is still frozen. A nod must also be given to Mark Margolis for his role as Abe’s maternal grandfather. He transforms so completely into the role but also knows when to let Noah have his moment.
Credit must also be given to the heart and soul of the film, Brazilian musician and actor Seu Jorge in his role as Chico, the reluctant but wise mentor to Abe. He fills this familiar Yoda-esque character with a sense of fun and a much needed infusion of free-spiritedness.
By far the most interesting decision in the whole film is to include Abe’s constant posting on social media. Tumblr, Instagram, and Google are all featured prominently through the film. The voice-over is also peppered with hashtags and dictation of Instagram posts. It plunges us directly into Abe’s head and allows us to see his perspective. The internet is the only space he has to figure out who he wants to be and express this developing version of himself. These moments of internet blitz are also a very clever way for Andrade to move the story forward swiftly, with purely visual storytelling. Another risk that paid off was the infusion of Latin American music tracks throughout the film. It is a bit jarring at first considering the nationality of the main characters, but ultimately it adds another layer to the colourful mix of cultures represented in the film.
Abe is a sweet, bold movie about a budding young chef— yes, but it is also about the power food has to cross boundaries. Something which helps join us as humans. It was refreshing to see a softer, more grounded exploration of the tensions between Israeli and Palestinian identity where each culture is respected and neither one is pushed over the other. It may be simplistic at times, and there are moments where it feels like two different films that are tied together, unsure of how they are connected. But that is mostly the point. Only in New York City could this tale not only exist, but thrive. Hopefully it will offer a lifeline to kids with similar identity struggles as Abe, through the colourful, transformative world of street food.
Abe is out on DVD in the US from June 2nd
by Mia Garfield