Writer-director Claudia Sainte-Luce heralds herself as a new talent to watch with "The Amazing Catfish," an outstanding debut of tremendous heart and appeal. The Mexican filmmaker strikes an ideal balance between understated realism and hopeful poignancy in this warm, wry, semi-autobiographical Spanish-language drama about the resilience and elasticity of family.
Two urban women share a dingy hospital room: Young supermarket clerk Claudia (Ximena Ayala) has appendicitis, and mother-of-four Martha (Lisa Owen) has, well, she won't say. Observing that the shy, slumping Claudia is always alone, Martha cajoles the surgery patient into her car and under her wing. The flintily independent Claudia is afraid of overstaying her welcome, but Martha's needy, boisterous brood is only too happy to have a distraction from their mother's deteriorating health.
Though its premise could be lifted straight from a Lifetime TV movie, Sainte-Luce's film benefits from pitch-perfect execution, particularly in its elaboration of the children's varying reactions to the new older-sister figure in their home. Responsible eldest daughter Ale (Sonia Franco) immediately forges a rivalry, theatrical middle children Wendy and Mariana (Wendy Guillén and Andrea Baeza) can't resist indulging in adolescent selfishness, and preteen Armando (Alejandro Ramírez-Muñoz) projects his burgeoning interest in sex onto the new woman in his life. Grainily shot but radiating life, "The Amazing Catfish" is an enormously affecting portrait of a family in crisis that dares to hope.
"The Amazing Catfish."
No MPAA rating; in Spanish with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
At Laemmle's Noho 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena.