Gabriel is travelling on a bus holding a letter from a girl. We don’t know where he’s coming from or where he’s going, but it’s clear he loves her (or, more precisely, the idea of having her). It’s not her specifically that’s important, but more her ability to accomplish Gabe’s fantasies: standing on a beach, he proposes, they kiss, get married, and have kids. The twist here is that this set-up tells us more about the main character’s mental state than our own. In other words, the wish-fulfillment isn’t designed for us to be uplifted but for him, because we know his fantasy is illusory.
Lou Howe’s directorial debut, Gabriel, is the heart-wrenching story of an abnormal and mentally ill young man’s longing for normality and stability. He copes not through drugs, alcohol or sex; instead, he dreams. He imagines a loving, trusting family with a father and a mother. He imagines a wife, a home, and a career. The misery is that we know it’s not possible because Gabriel is mentally ill–neither care nor compassion has helped. What separates Lou Howe’s tragic film from a more mindlessly depressing one is his love, empathy, and hopefulness for Gabriel. Instead of simply making a plot in which the protagonist is hurt by others and in turn lashes out violently, Howe goes under the surface to not only make us care about Gabriel, but to give us a comprehensive understanding of his actions.
Over the course of a weekend, Gabe returns home, after being away in an institution, to meet his brother’s new girlfriend and to reunite with his mother and grandmother. For him, however, the trip is a chance to reconnect with a girl whom he knew when he was a kid so that he can propose to her.
A film with comparable subject matter is Xavier Dolan’s grotesquely stylized and unabashedly melodramatic Mommy. But where that film found poignancy in over-the-top yelling matches and interludes of grand cinematic embellishment, Gabriel captures feelings through smaller, quieter moments. Despite being significantly slighter in scope, Howe manages to capture something Dolan’s corkscrew missed out on: focused and efficient characterization. Gabriel is not a series of ticks and contrivances; we believe him and we feel for him.
Howe’s characterization of Gabe is so strong because he surrounds him with objects he desires: wealth, happiness, normality, and love. His brother, who looks like a well-off business type, is on his way to being married to a beautiful woman. Gabe’s grandma has a luxurious wedding ring that she doesn’t wear. Old pictures recall days where Gabe’s family was together (albeit dysfunctionally so). An old letter and shirt from Gabe’s dream girl fuel his fantasies. Without having his character say anything, we get a sense of his feelings of loneliness and worthlessness just through small interactions and subtleties.
Perhaps more important is Rory Culkin’s fantastic portrayal of this disturbed young man. Finding humor in what could have been a nihilistic performance is only one of the multiple aspects of this great work. As Gabriel seeks to escape his family to find the girl, we never call into question his motives or believability. Culkin feels comfortably and effortlessly unforced.
Howe manages to keep a raw realism without the cost of efficiency or hopefulness. He lets his film naturally progress, and at 85 minutes we never feel like the film stops moving – almost every scene adds something to the story. By the time it comes to its seat-pinning conclusion (with the best final shot of 2015 that culminates the film’s ambiguity, tragedy and ecstasy), we not only feel like we’ve lived with this young man for two days, but that we understand his life beyond the borders of the screen. By the end, what was originally merely Gabe’s fantasy becomes our own; Howe has made us care for him so that we too desire nothing else but to see him standing on the beach kissing the girl of his dreams.