BETTER LATE THAN NEVER: The Amazing Catfish and Gabrielle

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amazing catfishI really feel as if I should apologize. A movie came and went, not too long ago now, that played only a week and that I saw and that I never got around to reviewing.
And it’s shame because it’s one of the finer films of the year.
The movie is The Amazing Catfish, a movie from Mexico written and directed by Claudia Saint-Luce. It revolves around a young woman, Claudia (no relation), who works in a supermarket handing out samples. She has no relatives in the big city and has in fact left her small town because her family really has no use for her and doesn’t much care if she’s around or not.


When she gets appendicitis, she ends up in a hospital in a bed next to Martha, who is HIV positive, and the matriarch of a close knit family. Martha’s one of those people who feel life is to be lived, but isn’t cloyingly annoying about it (I think it’s safe to say she’s no Auntie Mame). Martha also has four children of various ages, from various husbands and boyfriends, who are going through the various things that children of various ages go through.


When Martha realizes that Claudia is alone, she invites her home for the night and slowly but surely, Claudia doesn’t leave and becomes one of the family.


Claudia is one of those passive characters who screenwriters are told not to write because they are…well, passive. She is more an observer than someone who has an active goal. But still she holds interest because she is the stand in for the audience. We are as intrigued by this family as much as she is. And since we like her so much, and feel so much empathy for her loneliness, we want her to make a connection to these people and so we wait with baited breath to see if she will or not.


And in many ways her interaction with the family is more a puzzlement to her than anything else. She doesn’t quite get these people. At the same time, she finds she can’t leave. At one point, a character asks her why she is still with them; the character doesn’t ask because she wants Claudia to go back to her one room dreary flat; that’s the last thing she wants. She asks because she doesn’t see the family the same way Claudia does and doesn’t really understand why anyone would want to hang out with them. But of course, someone on the outside always sees those on the inside in a different way than the insiders do.


The Amazing Catfish is a lovely, lyrical little movie that slowly creeps up on you. There’s no strong conflict (there’s a lot of sibling rivalry and squabbling, but nothing bigger than that). It takes its own time and doesn’t try to push its agenda, which is good, since I’m not really sure it has one.


It’s just about a bunch of people who become part of one another’s lives. Little else.


But it’s actually about a lot more at the same time. It’s also about a bunch of people who love each other no matter how much they dislike each other in the moment. It’s about a bunch of people who try to make their world and family bigger, to live life as full as they can, to take life as it comes. It’s about a bunch of people who reach out to life with open arms, but who do so without really thinking about it.


And when Martha dies, it becomes one of those movies that is actually life affirming (don’t you love the irony that a work of art can is only life affirming if someone dies?).


With Ximena Ayala as Claudia and Lisa Owen as Martha.


gabrielle_-_h_-_2013Garbrielle and Martin are young, they’re in love, they have Williams syndrome (a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by developmental delay coupled with an overly cheerful demeanor and ease with strangers).


Gabrielle lives in a group home. But now she desires to be more independent. The catalyst for this is her desire to have a relationship, both emotionally and physically, with Martin, who sings in a choir with her.


Though Gabrielle’s mother and sister don’t see a problem, Martin’s mother is worried about the possibility of Gabrielle becoming pregnant.   So she removes Martin from the choir just as they are preparing for a city wide concert where they are to sing with Robert Charlebois, an important singer/songwriter in French music who seems to be a cross between Tom Jones and Jacques Brel and sings songs with some of the oddest lyrics I’ve heard in some time.


Written and directed by Louise Archambault, Gabrielle has some unusual aspects to it, like a group home run by two gay men who are in a relationship (they have a very practical and everyday way of dealing with the people in their care; when one of the caretakers and Martin’s mother finds her son and Gabrielle in what looks to someone who doesn’t have the context to be a compromising situation, he simply asks Gabrielle whether she touched Martin’s penis; when she says no, well, case closed).


But not all the movie works as well as one might.


Gabrielle is played by Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, who actually has Williams syndrome. Martin is played by Alexander Landry, who doesn’t. Both handle their roles very well, but it’s probably best not knowing that Landry is not developmentally challenged (oops, too late, sorry) because it then makes a sex scene between the two a bit creepy, giving it a feeling of uncomfortable exploitation.


At other times, it feels like the characters oscillate between taking Gabrielle and Martin’s situation seriously and having their heads in the sand. When the subject of Gabrielle possibly getting pregnant comes up, Gabrielle’s sister says that Gabrielle knows about condoms—but seeing that that doesn’t stop people who aren’t developmentally challenged from getting pregnant, I’m sure I don’t know why this didn’t fill me with the greatest of relief.


And somewhere along the line, this downside to Martin and Gabrielle having sex seems to get dropped for some reason.


There’s also something a bit off about Gabrielle’s sister Sophie (Melissa Desomaux-Poulin) having to choose between joining her boyfriend who is teaching children in India and her sister. He makes some good points about whether she should leave, but is so manipulative about it that one wants her to drop this controlling, guilt tripping cad. (And why does every choice a woman makes in film these days have to be between something and a man.)


As a whole, Gabrielle is strong when it comes to its almost cinema verité look at the lives of people with Williams and other development syndromes, but is not quite as strong when it comes to forward momentum and tension.   It’s a bit slow at times.


But when all is said and done, the main issue is that it doesn’t really do much new with the subject matter and much of the movie seems a bit familiar.  At the same time, I don’t exactly want to knock it either. It’s perfectly okay and gets the job done and introduces you to a world you may not be familiar with.

So tell me what you think.

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