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“Gabriel” Dares To Tackle Mental Illness Without The Usual Hollywood Clichés

And the lead performance from youngest Culkin sibling Rory shows he’s ready for bigger things.

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While Macaulay Culkin’s busy with his pizza-themed Velvet Underground tribute band, his younger brothers continue to carry on the family acting legacy. After a memorable leading role in the 2002 dark comedy Igby Goes Down, Kieran Culkin’s been turning up in hip fare like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Margaret in recent years. And after kicking off his career playing Laura Linney’s young son in 2000’s You Can Count on Me, Rory Culkin gets his turn to make a compelling case that he should be a bigger star in the new movie Gabriel, which just had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this week.

Though the youngest of the Culkin siblings, at 24, he is now a long way from his child actor days. As the title character in Gabriel (a name the character hates), he’s just far enough into adulthood to scare the hell out of his family members, who are cautiously preparing to welcome him home from a stint in a psych hospital while grappling with the possibility that he will never be able to function safely in the outside world. Gabriel isn’t a kid anymore, but there are moments from his childhood he continues to fixate on, including the death of his father and the memory of a girl named Alice that he’s sure he’s in love with, despite not having seen her for years.

And Gabriel’s journey is harrowing to watch. The debut film from writer-director Lou Howe plays like a thriller, a quality owed entirely to Culkin’s performance; he is at the center of every scene, the camera sticking claustrophobically by his side as he tries to use his trip home as an excuse to look for Alice, tracking her down with alarming dedication from her college town to her dad’s apartment in New York and beyond. Gabriel is an unromanticized, non-Hollywood depiction of mental illness that doesn’t try to suggest its main character’s issues are simply due to some trauma that just needs to be sussed out. There’s no “solving” Gabriel, whose bursts of rage and distress are accompanied by a cutting intelligence and instances of sharp self-awareness that hurt even more.

Mental illness is one of the film industry’s favorite platforms for flashy acting, but Culkin really doesn’t indulge with Gabriel, and his finest moments aren’t his biggest, but the ones when the character quivers right on the edge of functionality and there’s a swelling sense of dread. The sequence below, which imperceptibly turns from warmth to darkness, highlights Culkin’s ability to show Gabriel’s capacity for humor and cruelty while also demonstrating his sense of self-loathing and self-righteousness.

In the scene at the dinner table, or the one in which Gabriel meets his older brother Matthew’s (David Call) girlfriend, or when he casually pockets a knife, he’s empathetic even as he’s frightening, believably capable of hurting himself or someone else. He has flashes of stability, but he also knows how to pass himself off as such when it’s just an act that slips out of his grasp after a few minutes.

Gabriel is a showcase for Culkin, but it doesn’t lose sight of the experiences of the characters’ loved ones and the bone-deep exhaustion that comes with caring about him. Deirdre O’Connell is especially heartrending as Gabriel’s mother, Meredith, who weathered similar experiences with his father and understands she can’t be disappointed in her son, only in herself for getting her hopes up. Culkin’s scenes with her, tender and cutting, are the most memorable in this small but impressive first film, which doesn’t yet have theatrical distribution but is worth seeking out when it’s picked up.

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