Taking a seed of an idea and nurturing it into a fable about moral hypocrisy, "Bearcub" substantiates prolific Spanish helmer Miguel Albaladejo's rep for well-observed, character-based dramas with an offbeat twist and a potent emotional undertow. A heartwarming take on a young boy's impact on the emotional life of a gay man, pic features no big names, but dependable director and pic's unusual combination of explicit sex and unsensational treatment of off-limits subject-matter could lead to some European theatrical exposure, with screenings at gay-themed fests a certainty.

Taking a seed of an idea and nurturing it into a fable about moral hypocrisy, “Bearcub” substantiates prolific Spanish helmer Miguel Albaladejo’s rep for well-observed, character-based dramas with an offbeat twist and a potent emotional undertow. A heartwarming take on a young boy’s impact on the emotional life of a gay man, pic features no big names, but dependable director and pic’s unusual combination of explicit sex and unsensational treatment of off-limits subject-matter could lead to some European theatrical exposure, with screenings at gay-themed fests a certainty.

The in-your-face opening scene looks like “Deep Throat” meets National Geographic, as two “bears” (Spanish slang for bearded, tubby gay men) have ponderous sex. They’re interrupted by pleasure-seeking Pedro (Jose Luis Garcia Perez), a bear himself and a dentist, whose scatter-brained sister, Violeta (Elvira Lindo), has asked him to look after her 9-year-old son, Bernardo (David Castillo), for 15 days while she’s in India.

When Pedro’s buddy Javi (Mario Arias) visits after the boy has moved in, Pedro rebukes him as he starts to roll a joint. Already, Pedro’s attitudes are starting to change. Lola (Diana Cerezo), the daughter of apartment building superintendent Gloria (Josele Roman), is brought in as a baby sitter. Flight attendant Manuel (Arno Chevrier), an old lover of Pedro’s looking to settle down with him, comes to visit, but Pedro tells him he’s not ready for a relationship.

Nemesis turns up in the shape of Bernardo’s paternal grandmother, the severely moralistic Dona Teresa (Empar Ferrer). She hasn’t seen Bernardo for years and is desperate to have him back, but Bernardo is now happy with Pedro and doesn’t want to leave.

Further troubles arrive with the news that Violeta has been imprisoned in India for drug-trafficking. Pedro duly sets to work turning his house into a home for the boy. But when Pedro heads into a local park in search of sex, he’s followed and photographed by a detective sent by Dona Teresa.

Like Almodovar before him, Albaladejo likes to take wildly dissimilar characters and throw them together to see what happens. The relationship between Pedro and Bernardo is nicely modulated, with each recognizing in the other the emotional damage they share. Skillful scripting always keeps things just the right side of sentimental.

In one short scene, Bernardo is in bed with Pedro and they have their arms around one another. Typically of pic’s matter-of-fact style, this contains no hint of scandal. Their mutual affection is also neatly encapsulated in one touching, silent scene where Pedro cuts Bernardo’s hair short. Both thesps are up to the task, though Garcia Perez’s capacity for emotional range sometimes looks limited in the role of Pedro.

The script’s compassion extends to all the characters, even Dona Teresa, who could easily have come across as an evil stepmother. However, Lola and Gloria are underdeveloped, providing little more than comic relief.

The portrayal of the world of Madrid’s “bears” — a world in which shot-putters and ’70s Greek singer Nana Mouskouri are sex symbols — is affectionate and perceptive, with only a few lapses. Visually, sex scenes are low-lit and natural, and Alfonso Sanz’s unfussy lensing finds urban poetry in the shadowy rooms and saunas of gay Madrid. Lucio Gody’s piano-based score is also typical of the film’s generally low-frills style.

Pic features some French dialogue.

Bearcub

Spain

Production

A Manga Films release of a Star Line production, in association with TVE, Canal Plus, TeleMadrid. (International sales: Media Luna Entertainment, Cologne.) Produced by Juan Alexander. Executive producers, Sergio Castellote, Jose Luis Garcia Arroyo. Directed by Miguel Albaladejo. Screenplay, Albaledejo, Salvador Garcia.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Alfonso Sanz; editor, Pablo Blanco; music, Lucio Godoy; art director, Jose A. Carmona; sound (Dolby Digital), Sergio Burmann. Reviewed at Fotofilm, Madrid, Jan. 27, 2004. (In Berlin Film Festival -- Panorama.) Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Jose Luis Garcia Perez, David Castillo, Diana Cerezo, Mario Arias, Arno Chevrier, Josele Roman, Elvira Lindo, Empar Ferrer. (Spanish, French dialogue)
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