'Treading Water': Film Review

Treading Water Still - H 2015
Courtesy of The Orchard

Treading Water Still - H 2015

Smells fishy is right

Analeine Cal y Mayor's whimsical comedy concerns a teenage boy who suffers from a rare medical condition that makes him smell like a fish

To fully prepare for the oppressive whimsy of Mexican filmmaker Analeine Cal y Mayor's feature directorial debut, you must be aware of its original title: The Boy Who Smells Like Fish. Now being given a theatrical release under the more generic and less descriptive moniker Treading Water, this coming-of-age tale never quite manages to live up to its quirky premise.

The central character, the teenage Mica (Douglas Smith) suffers from trimethylaminuria, a real-life condition—feel free to Google the details—whose sufferers emit an oppressive fishy smell from their breath and bodily secretions. As screen maladies go, it doesn't quite rank with those endured by the protagonists of The Elephant Man or Mask.

If that isn't bad enough, poor Mica has to endure growing up in his parent's home which doubles as a kitschy museum devoted to a famed (fictional) Mexican singer, Guillermo Garibai. Mica's loving mother Sophie (Ariadna Gil, Pan's Labyrinth) serves as the tour guide while his self-absorbed father Richard (Canadian actor/filmmaker Don McKellar) basically goes about his own business before eventually abandoning his family.

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The film dutifully depicts the travails of Mica's condition, beginning with his mother's doctor wrinkling his nose as he hands the new baby to the mother just after she gives birth. Not helped by the "special soaps" prescribed by a series of doctors, Mica finds himself bullied at school, his stink not at all hidden by the pine air freshener he wears as a necklace. A support group for those afflicted by exotic illnesses provides little solace; nor do his sessions with a solicitous therapist (Carrie-Anne Moss) who gently rebuffs his awkward romantic advance.

The sensitive, good-looking Mica is attractive to women—he's approached by a beautiful girl when he happens to be standing by the seafood section at a supermarket, thereby disguising his aroma—but it isn't until he once again encounters his childhood crush Laura (Zoe Kravitz), who doesn't seem to mind his stench, that the possibility of romance blooms.

The film straining for magical realism has serious tonal problems. The horrific accidental death of Mica's mother, for instance, is barely given any dramatic weight at all. A late appearance by the singer Garibai (played by veteran Mexican star Gonzalo Vega), who acts as a matchmaker for the two lead characters, doesn't add much to the proceedings, and a campy end credits musical sequence set in a pool--the only place where Mica can feel comfortable, since the water masks his smell—feels like an outtake from an old Esther Williams musical.

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The two young leads are highly appealing, and the film features engagingly colorful visuals—production designer Elisa Sauve's evocation of the tacky museum is worthy of Wes Anderson—but Treading Water lives up to its title all too well.

Production: Rhombus Media, Redrum, Mecanismo Films
Cast: Douglas Smith, Zoe Kravitz, Carrie-Ane Moss, Adriadna Gil, Gonzalo Vega, Don McKellar
Director: Analeine Cal y Mayor
Screenwriters: Alaleine Cal y Mayor, Javier Gullon
Producers: Niv Fichman, Stacy Perskie
Executive producer: Jose Herrero de Egana
Director of photography: Gregory Middleton
Production designer: Elisa Sauve
Editor: Oscar Figueroa
Costume designer: Patrick Antosh
Composer: Benoit Charest
Casting: Deirdre Bowen

No rating, 92 min.