It’s surprisingly hard to make a truly effectively quirky film. In the case of Treading Water, filmmaker Analeine Cal y Mayor has some moments of effectiveness, but unfortunately the movie just doesn’t wind up amounting to much. Mayor makes a valiant effort, at times even evoking the Coen Brothers with some of the imagery and even the tone, but the flick still can’t quite pull its weight. Douglas Smith isn’t a hugely stimulating leading man, for one, while the story, centered on a boy who smells like fish, isn’t filling enough for a full length feature (that in turn hurts Smith and limits his potential in the main role). As a short, it definitely could have ben pulled off, and possibly even might have been a festival favorite. At feature length though, its seams become evident. It’s an enjoyable film at times, but you see where it’s going early on and frankly start to just wait for it to catch up and get there. Treading Water is decent enough to prevent anyone from really having any animosity to it, but I doubt it’ll bring out much in the way of hearty praise either. It is what it is, in a way. You won’t be let down, but you won’t be elevated either, that’s for sure. Plot wise at least, Treading Water is an apt title for this one, indeed. Alas.
If you were just taking a quick look at the life Mica (Smith) has led, you wouldn’t notice too much out of the ordinary. Sure, he doesn’t seem to have any friends and he lives in a home with his parents that also doubles as a museum to legendary Mexican singer named Guillermo Garibai, including guided tours. Spend some more time with him though, and you’ll realize that Mica has one very unique trait…he smells like fish. It’s puzzled doctors and his therapist (Carrie-Anne Moss) for years, and Mica has basically accepted solitude (along with with wearing a car air freshener around his neck everywhere he goes) and spending most of his time in the water (he doesn’t seem to smell when in water, oddly enough). That just the way it is for him, at least until Laura (Zoë Kravitz) takes a shine to him. That encounter has him at least considering what it would be like to really interact with strangers. From there on, you watch as Mica struggles to keep Laura from discovering his odor, all the while beginning to fall in love with her. Yep, that’s basically all that there is to the plot here.
No one in the cast is bad here, but at the same time, no one manages to help elevate the material. Douglas Smith is given the challenge of essaying a character mainly notable for his stench, which he has no good way of conveying to the audience. Furthermore, he’s often alone, limiting the times when it even comes up. Smith is fine, if a bit on the bland side, but the role just gives him very little to work with. Zoë Kravitz gives the film a little spark when she pops up, but she’s not nearly in it enough to truly make a difference. Kravitz is the best thing in the flick, I’ll say that. Carrie-Anne Moss essentially has a cameo here, while the rest of the cast includes Don McKellar and Ariadna Gil as Mica’s parents, plus the likes of Brian Bridger, Gonzalo Vega, and others as well. Still, aside from Kravitz, no one really is able to leave any sort of a notable mark. They’re just let down by the material, plain and simple.
Co-writer/director Analeine Cal y Mayor teams with scribe Javier Gullón to tell a story that frankly I’m not sure needed to be told. That doesn’t mean that they’re not talented, since they are, or that Treading Water is bad, since it isn’t, but Mayor and Gullón never fully establish why this was a movie they wanted to make. Mayor’s direction is affable but never dynamic in any way, while the script from the two of them doesn’t make much of an effort to do anything interesting with the concept of a boy who smells like fish. Odor just isn’t cinematic, something that the two of them apparently never really considered.
It’s not that Treading Water is without merit, it’s just that the film doesn’t get to a level where you feel like it’s something to race out and see. The cast buys into the concept and individual moments definitely work, including a few amusing gags involving Mica trying to shield people from discovering his stench, but the overall mixture just is too bland. I can’t go ahead and recommend Treading Water, but I’m not telling you to run in the other direction either. It’s just a few steps below where quality cinema needs to be.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!