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At the beginning of Abe, our 12-year-old titular protagonist (Stranger Things' Noah Schnapp) notes that while he prefers the simple "Abe," he's sometimes called Avram, sometimes Ibrahim. That's because the Brooklyn youth comes from a particularly complicated mixed marriage: his father, Amir (Arian Moayed), is Palestinian, and his mother, Rebecca (Dagmara Dominczyk), is Israeli. And though Abe's parents have chosen to live secular lives without either religion, when the family gets together for occasions like Abe's birthday, it's hard to avoid more than a little tension.
It wouldn't be difficult to anticipate that story, from Brazilian co-writer/director Fernando Grostein Andrade, turning into a simple "why can't we all just get along" narrative. But Abe manages to find some richer territory to mine as it reveals Abe's passion for cooking, and his overly optimistic sense for how food might bring his battling family members together. At an outdoor food stand, he meets Chico (Seu Jorge), a Brazilian-born chef who reluctantly agrees to take on Abe as a kind of apprentice. So while Abe's parents believe he's attending the introductory summer food camp where they drop him off each day, he's actually making his way to Chico's kitchen.
There's a simple and familiar dynamic to the scenes of Abe's growing friendship with Chico, reminiscent of The Karate Kid in how we watch menial tasks turned into an introduction to basic discipline. It's also likely to inspire some salivating at the screen, as Andrade showcases cooking accompanied by bouncy rhythms that turn the act of creating delicious food into a kind of musical.
Mostly, however, it's wistfully charming to observe as Abe becomes convinced that the notions of "fusion" cooking that he learns from Chico can be applied to bringing the two sides of his family together, especially as he plans an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner encompassing signature dishes from Jewish and Palestinian traditions. Schnapp's performance strikes a delicate tone as the adolescent tries to broker a peace, even as he expresses genuine interest in exploring both sides of his heritage. And given the odd nature of Abe's personality that finds him making few in-real-life friends and connecting with others only via his social media, the importance of his family comes into even sharper focus.
Abe might ultimately prove a bit too optimistic in its notion of how successful one 12-year-old can be in bridging deep cultural rifts, and the conclusion feels rushed after only 80 minutes. Yet there's an easygoing to charm to the film that feels just right for the moment. A lovingly-prepared meal can't solve all the world's problems, but it's enjoyable relaxing into a taste for the advantages of a cultural melting pot.
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Slay the Dragon 3 stars
If there's one thing we need right now in a time when so many of us feel helpless, it's a reminder of what it feels like to take action when everything seems hopeless. Directors Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance take on the topic of gerrymandering in American politics, providing a historical framework before taking a deep dive into how the Republican Party, in the wake of the 2008 election, developed their elaborate "Project Redmap" for changing the electoral landscape. Inevitably there's a fair amount of talking-head material as the film sets up the stakes, and the almost impossibly successful GOP attempts to flip state legislatures and then Congressional districts after the 2010 census. But the heart of the story comes when the focus shifts to Katie Fahey, a political novice who decided to launch Michigan's ballot initiative for an independent redistricting commission, as well as a challenge to Wisconsin's gerrymandered districts that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. It's always clear the financial and political forces arrayed against these agitators for change, and we sometimes see them at their most pessimistic. But it's hard not to feel a surge of emotion at seeing resilient fighters refusing to believe that their voices—and the very ideas of representative democracy—don't matter.