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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Tribeca Review: Rory Culkin Shines As A Teenager Battling Mental Illness In The Otherwise Detached Drama, 'GABRIEL'

Rory Culkin
I often wonder why Rory Culkin (Igby Goes Down) isn't a bigger movie star. He's solid if not exceptional in everything I've seen him in. He's certainly made his mark on the indie scene, which is usually a springboard to larger recognition. And he even managed to add depth to a rather thinly written character in Scream 4. Usually playing the "troubled" character hidden among similarly aged characters that consume the spotlight, Culkin's quirkiness is often marginalized. For what it's worth, GABRIEL attempts to fix that.

But while the new indie film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, finally puts Culkin at the forefront of the story, his performance is the only thing about it that stands out. The actor stars as the title character, an emotionally unstable teenager fresh out of a mental facility--perhaps a bit too soon--who heads back home to Connecticut where his mother (Deidre O'Connell) and older brother Matthew (David Call) can take care of him. Trouble is, he's not interested in being under anyone's care, including his family. All he wants is to reunite with Alice (Emily Meade), a childhood crush who in his mind has blossomed into the love of his life. He is determined to jump through all hoops to find her, even if it means losing his family's trust.

Culkin really seems to understand the intricacies of this character, down to biting his nails, intensely fidgeting and bouts of paranoia. It's a great character piece that allows him to dig into into the layers of a young man trapped in his own mind and grasping for some sense of stability. But living in New York, there are little details about the film that bothered me. First instance, at one point Gabriel slips out of his brother's sight and somehow has money to get to New York City to look for Alice and while there stop at a diner for his favorite meal and run out without paying and not so much as a protest from management. I often wondered whether we were just watching a dream, something that Gabriel concocted in his head. Because the way things were stacking up, it made it hard to seem like it could even happen.

Gabriel escapes from his family once more later in the film when he takes Matthew's car, somehow finds money for a ferry and gets all the way to Shelter Island, where Alice is staying with her family. Not once do we see him use any form of payment, ever. It's striking because we can only assume that his family would have only given him enough money to take the bus from the facility to their home in Connecticut and that's it. They already know Gabriel's tendency to slip out of their sight (in one scene Matthew makes a point not to leave him alone in the car with the keys, and in another scene their mother locks his bedroom door from the outside so he doesn't slip away in the middle of the night), and would likely take the precautions to not give him money for him for mobility. So how is it that he can go to and from New York any chance he gets?

Again, it's not a major plot point but it bothered me because it happens more than once and is quite obvious. The rest of the film, outside of Culkin's performance, is also hard to connect with. While we get some pieces of background history about this tragic family, I still never feel attached to any of the three main characters, or their father (who is mentioned in the past tense, but is significant to Gabriel's hysteria). While O'Connell as the protective yet helpless maternal figure does a fine job grounding the film with genuine emotion, it does little to resonate with the audience.

First time feature writer/director Lou Howe seems to approach the story from a third person point of view, which makes it seem quite distant. The film would have benefited from a first person narration, allowing the audience to get into Gabriel's head so we can better understand him. Or, maybe even better yet, a few flashback scenes would have added depth and reference. Without that it comes off elusive. Howe should be commended for taking on such a mature project that has its moments of intrigue, but GABRIEL just never quite gets there.

Rating: B- (*** out of *****)


Brittani Burnham said...

I don't know why Rory isn't a bigger name either, I think he's probably the most talented of the Culkin bunch. (Keiran being second, and he should be a bigger name too.) That's good to hear he gives a good performance here, I still want to see this one. Great review!

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