The eponymous tot of The Fish Child (El niño pez) is apparently part of a Paraguayan religious belief that a little boy who lives in a lake will take care of your dead children. To initiate this aquatic babysitting relationship, grieving parents set up little tributes composed of plastic dolls and gewgaws on fences and by bodies of water. In a beautifully effective moment of magical realism, a teenager, Lala (Inés Efron), eases herself into Lake Ypoa and communes with this Merboy. Otherwise, The Fish Child leaves its flippers behind and the film remains rather earthbound.
An offering of the current Tribeca Film Festival, this is the sophomore effort of Argentinean novelist/director Lucia Puenzo, whose 2007 debut, XXY, a tale of a 15-year-old intersex person (also played by Efron), won the Critics' Week grand prize at Cannes.
It'd be hard to imagine that The Fish Child will make a similar splash. Adapting her own novel, which was narrated by a dog, Puenzo has resorted to a more traditional viewpoint, that of the objective camera lens. In doing so, she's shorn her tale of any humor, black or otherwise. The story, which has enough backstory for a year of The Guiding Light, is told in a highly nonlinear manner, one that is a bit confounding at first.
In Buenos Aires, Lala, a teenaged lesbian, is having an affair with the 20-year-old family maid, Ailin (the seductive Mariela Vitale), who left Paraguay at age 13 after being impregnated by her TV-actor dad. Meanwhile, Lala's self-centered pa, a powerful judge, is getting death threats because he's writing his memoirs. Her mom, not a sit-at-home type, is entering marathons in France, and her manic brother is a recovering drug addict. No wonder Lala is walking about moony-eyed, like Rita Tushingham on Valium, awaiting her next kiss from the help.
Sadly, the kisses, the bare-breasted lovemaking, and the bathtub washings can only occur between the gals about every 20 minutes or so, since Ailin has also to dust, cook, serve hors d'oeuvres, and have sex with a few menfolk. During these sabbaticals from smooching, Lala either mopes or yearns for the moment she and her girlfriend will run away to Paraguay and live forever in the dream house they have already drawn up the plans for. Will God be charitable to the duo?
In the program notes, someone claims this chopped-up Sapphic saga is the Argentine Thelma and Louise. Is this a rip-roaring, wit-strewn road movie about two put-upon women trying to overcome a patriarchal society that views them as sex objects and hired hands? Well, maybe if you cut out "rip-roaring and wit-strewn." What you can expect is a beautifully shot, but often dour, love story about two gals who take about 90 exhausting minutes to get on the road to somewhere.
Puenzo's screenplay dilutes tension by flitting back and forth in time with the restlessness of a dragonfly in heat. Yet the love story of two young women who tenderly broach society's sexual mores and economic boundaries shouldn't be completely dismissed. If only all of the other shenanigans were edited out (and you can do so with iMovie now that DVD has been released), you might just be able to relax and exult in Lala and Ailin's trek to emancipation from a dog's life. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.