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Review: Magical Realist ‘Treading Water’ is an Enjoyable Hit-and-Miss Coming-of-Age Tale

Review: Magical Realist 'Treading Water' is an Enjoyable Hit-and-Miss Coming-of-Age Tale

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’s “Amelie,” 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

“Treading Water” is playing now in Los Angeles and New York, and it’s also available on VOD

Follow SydneysBuzz on Twitter @sydneysbuzz and on Facebook

Follow Carlos Aguilar on Twitter @Carlos_Film and on Instagram @carlosfilm

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