In "Gabriel," Rory Culkin's titular character is a fidgety, touchy, determined young man eager for an independence and adult fulfillment that we gradually realize over the course of writer-director Lou Howe's debut feature he'll likely never have.
A downbeat yet empathetic portrait of teenage mental illness that owes a small indie debt to the unnerving portraiture of filmmaker Lodge Kerrigan, "Gabriel" similarly stays close to its subject, like a shadow. Culkin makes the most of this attention too, vividly portraying a nervous, trauma-ridden bundle for whom you wish a measure of peace, even as he dooms himself through reckless actions.
Granted temporary leave from a facility to visit his family (which includes a wonderful Deirdre O'Connell as his warm, worried mother), Gabriel makes every effort to steal away and track down a girl he wants to marry. That this mission feels vaguely threatening creates a measure of suspense — Gabriel is working off a years-old letter from her, he carries a knife, the music gets increasingly anxious — but Culkin's performance is never exploitative. His eyes often say everything, appearing simultaneously laser-focused and distant — he can't reconcile his brain with the world. It's only the movie's final confrontation that feels calculatedly abrupt rather than compassionate. But until then "Gabriel" exhibits a welcome understanding of the broken, and the ripple effect of their pain.
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.