In Patrick Süskind
’s novel “Perfume” (which was turned into a film back in 2006 by German helmer Tom Tykwer
) the central character is born with no body odor and becomes fascinated with the scent of others. This defining trait affects his relationship with the world around him terribly hindering his social skills. Even though tonally both stories couldn’t be more disparate, filmmaker Analeine Cal y Mayor
’s debut feature “Treading Water
” revolves around a protagonist who suffers from essentially the opposite problem: his body secretes a fetid smell, which resembles that of fish, and there is nothing he can do to change it. And just like the murderous protagonist in the German tale, the hero here is also shaped negatively by his unique relationship with bodily aromas.
Born to a Mexican mother, Sophie (Ariadna Gil
), and an American, mostly absent father, Richard (Don McKellar
), curly-haired boy Mica (played by Brian Bridger
and Douglas Smith
) learns very early on that people are repulsed by him. Though it’s clear this reaction is nothing personal, it has an atrocious effect on his self-esteem. As if such strange physiological condition wasn’t enough to make him feel abnormal, Mica and his family live in a house that’s actually a museum honoring legendary Mexican singer Guillermo Garibai (Gonzalo Vega
) – a fictional character that appears to be based on classic performers from a bygone era. Sophie is the defacto tour guide, but not surprisingly Mica’s smell becomes a problem for the visitors - a clientele made up almost entirely of elderly women. Isolated and wearing a tree-shaped air freshener around his neck, grade-school-age Mica gets used to navigating life on his own having his therapist Catherine (Carrie-Anne Moss
) as his only friend.
Cal y Mayor’s visual and tonal approach, particularly in the opening sequences, is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet
,” even with in the darkly comedic way that a tragic death is handled. The quirky nature of the world allows for the filmmaker to showcase its eccentricities in all aspects of the story. Ostentatious portraits of Garibai, colorful wallpapers, a vintage gramophone, and many other bizarre objects and mementos conform the delightfully elaborate production design. A unique narcissistic shrine like this is fitting for this often irreverent coming-of-ager.
Fast-forwarding a few years, teenage Mica has become a skillful swimmer, as he knows that while underwater his smell isn’t as noticeable. Used to his lonesome path, he has decided not to go to college and instead runs the house/museum by himself. The only source of care and human interaction he knows is Catherine, who has definitely gone beyond her professional duties to help him. Unavoidably, this cycle is broken when a love interest emerges. Running into each other at the local pool, Laura (played by charismatic “Divergent
” actress Zoë Kravitz
), and Mica begin a romance that is not dictated by his uncommon stink or her secret life as a janitor.
Laced with magical realist elements, “Treading Water
” suffers from an uneven use of its collection of odd qualities that loses sight of what makes it special and relies on safe genre conventions for leverage. It centers on an abruptly conceived relationship that drives the attention away from the initial self-discovery premise and introduces an easy solution to the lead character’s core issue. Mica doesn’t really overcome his struggle with his unchangeable “curse,” but instead hopes that by finding someone who likes him enough to ignore, he might also accept it – the familiar “love cures all” card comes into play.
Interestingly enough, even if the film rushes to find a feel-good conclusion, there are multiple instances in which Cal y Mayor confronts her characters with more somber truths. Mica is perpetually depressed and craves companionship so much that he confuses platonic love with sexual attraction. Cynicism consumes him. When Catherine tries to reassure him, he explicitly calls himself a “freak” and attacks her for what he considers default, empty statements to make him better. These responses read as sincere from a person who has experienced alienation from birth, and it’s here that the film conveys engaging sincerity.
Exuding genuine emotions while in such singular surroundings, fresh-faced Douglas Smith
is a talented discovery. His receptive demeanor and gullible personality blend with the surreal reality and weird fairytale–like occurrences: renowned Mexican actor Gonzalo Vega
has one scene in which he is basically a funny fairy-godfather dealing with high cholesterol. Despite it all, Smith is promising and was able to carry “Treading Water
” by making such an unordinary concept into something relatable, and occasionally moving. An added bonus is the subtle way the director imbued the film with her Mexican roots through the use of traditional music, even if the story doesn’t reflect it as much thematically.
Aesthetically amusing and with a handful of notable components, “Treading Water
” is hit-and-miss, yet enjoyable offbeat romantic comedy. With this imaginative tale, Cal y Mayor establishes her fondness for idiosyncratic storytelling, and though this might not be a perfect example of her abilities, it sure smells like her work promises to have a memorable fragrance
" is playing now in Los Angeles and New York, and it's also available on VOD
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