In the Brooklyn-set tween drama “Abe,” a 12-year-old boy (Noah Schnapp, of “Stranger Things” fame) tries a culinary solution to unite the Palestinian Muslim and Israeli Jewish sides of his family: fusion food. Directed by the Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Grostein Andrade, this is a maudlin and predictable film, with oversimplified, kid-friendly takes on complex political issues. It’s also a surprisingly joyless production, lacking the stylistic and emotional flair to deliver even on the cheesy, feel-good promise of the setup.
An early scene introduces us to Abe’s dysfunctional family life. His birthday dinner features three cakes: one from his maternal grandfather, with the name “Avram” piped on top; another says “Ibrahim,” as his paternal grandparents prefer to call him; and the third, made by the budding chef himself, features his name of choice, “Abe.” None of them have candles because his parents — his adamantly atheistic father, Amir (Arian Moayed), and agnostic mother, Rebecca (Dagmara Dominczyk) — were too busy bickering. Soon, the celebration descends into a bitter argument about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It’s a rough situation for a shy and friendless middle-schooler, and Schnapp plays the part with winning, wide-eyed despair. But the screenwriters, Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader, render Abe’s identity crisis in exasperatingly superficial ways, as a haphazard string of stereotypical oppositions: His Jewish grandfather encourages him to take a sip of wine during the Sabbath, while his Islamic grandparents teach him that drinking “dulls the brain.” (There’s also a random confrontation at a bar mitzvah with a high school bully who makes digs about terrorism.)
In his quest to reconcile these conflicts, Abe finds inspiration online in an unlikely source: a Brazilian-American pop-up run by a curmudgeonly chef, Chico (Seu George), whom Abe manages to annoy enough to be allowed into his kitchen as a trainee. This opens “Abe” into another cultural — and culinary — world. But it’s rendered in the same flat and uninspired ways as Abe’s home life. Chico’s lessons are reduced to swift montages that are all tell and no show: Abe writes down words like “synergy” and “textures” and makes flavor maps in his notebook as the camera glides cursorily over spices and sauces and fruits, without any attempt to capture the sensations of taste and smell, the luscious pleasures of cooking and combining new foods.
Ultimately, it’s not even food that brings Abe’s family together, but fear and concern when he runs away after yet another showdown. One could interpret this as a metaphor for the naïve futility of Abe’s plan to resolve political differences with a meal, but that would give the film’s thin, inconsistent script much more credit than it deserves.