A Never-ending Journey
We first meet Gabriel (Rory Culkin) on a bus, bored and amped up. Gabe (he prefers it over Gabriel) begins making friends with a child by pretending to smoke twizzlers like cigars together. Eventually the mother begins actually paying attention to her kid and quickly intervenes as if Gabe is some sort of dangerous animal. Initially this appears as an over-reaction, but quickly we begin to sense that something about Gabriel isn’t quite right. From his jittery eyes and mannerisms, to his wandering mind that somehow straddles being present in the moment but lost in an entirely different world. Then some reveals emerge as Gabriel spends time trying to locate a girl named Alice, professing to folks he meets that he plans on marrying her (even though it’s clear, to us and to them, that they haven’t been in touch for some time.) As the pieces of the puzzle start to connect we begin to realize something is definitely not right with with this boy…
When Gabriel finally makes it home, the cat is let out of the bag that Gabriel was granted temporary leave from a mental health facility to visit his family. They appears to be incredibly supportive and love him, but they are clearly walking on eggshells in his presence. This is highlighted at their first dinner that is filled with laughter and love, but as soon as Gabriel casually grabs a bread knife, the whole scene becomes tense and anxious.
Then another piece of the puzzle falls as we learn that Gabriel’s Dad had commited suicide. Family squabbling ensues, and while these roles may not have the time dedicated as compared to Culkins egnimatic character, frantic mother Meredith (Dierdre O’Connell) and older brother Matthew (David Call) are fantastic in illustrating how exhausting it can be to deal with mental illness in your family.
Eventually this leads to multiple escapes from his home, and culminating in his eventual meeting with Alice as Gabriel is forced to reconcile his past and present in an all too sudden finale.
A Conflicted Character
First time director Lou Howe created a fully fleshed family dynamic, treating each character with honest care. Rory’s performance should be a masterclass in character study. The way Gabriel is constantly shifting his hands in front of his face, as if he doesn’t trust them, is chilling. He’s a child that’s desperate, confused and yet hopeful…although oblivious to how desperate he is. The moment you begin to feel sympathetic for him, he makes horrifying choices, such as robbing his grandmother. Gabriel has no concept how his actions affect other people, as they are just a way to placate his obsessions. He can be a menace, distrustful and a slick liar. In preparation to seek out Alice, Gabriel avoids his medications and uses those who love him, all in order to engage in what he imagines as a romantic quest, but most folks would call stalking.
It is pretty refreshing to see Howe just put Gabriel out there flaws and all, without relying on the standard Hollywood narrative for mental illness. Howe makes no attempt to excuse Gabriel’s actions as a part of his mental illness, He allows the viewer to decide.
A Simple Tale With Complicated Emotions
Throughout the film there is nothing about Gabriel’s story that is strikingly complex: all the character are motivated by normal desires, and mostly act naturally. Whether it be Gabriel’s duplicitous charm, His mother’s empathy or his brothers exasperation, you get the tang of real life from these people. In fact the film appears to be very parochial.
Howe masterfully cuts out all the fat in this film, as there are no pointless grandstanding or reveals in the dialogue telling us what or how to feel. The film is very conversational in the way the characters interact with one another, as the viewer you never feel that the dialogue was directed towards you or for your benefit. Moments of familial in-jokes are allowed to just happen, and we are simply allowed to watch the story unfold and let the complexities and emotions of Gabriel’s mental illness take center stage. Make no mistake, this is not a statement film. Howe has taken to hear the motto of “show, don’t tell.” Everything is there for you to take or leave, and to appreciate in finer detail with each viewing.