As inviting as an open fire hydrant in August, Sergio M. Castilla’s “The Girl in the Watermelon” sets a young girl’s search for an unknown father against an idealized urban backdrop. Casting New York City as a colorful, multicultural playground, “Watermelon” becomes overripe at points but the mush is easily overlooked as pic’s good nature takes hold.
Pic’s position as the opener for the 1994 New Directors/New Films series could prove a mixed blessing: Spotlight might be too harsh for this small, albeit charming, entry. Still, warm audience and critical response should help “Watermelon” find a distrib and a place on the specialized circuit.
Chief among Castilla’s accomplishments is discovery of Meredith Scott Lynn, who plays 17-year-old Samantha Mayerofsky. Lynn keeps the smart, precocious Sam from sitcom-brat status, and contributes mightily to the film’s considerable warmth.
Sam is a Brooklyn girl on a mission: to find the father she never knew. Getting no answers from her exasperated mother (well-played by Michele Pawk), the teenager steals a peek at mom’s 1976 datebook. She discovers two paternal candidates: one a Latino, trumpet-playing ladies man (Lazaro Perez) and the other a WASPy, gay and very wealthy SoHo art dealer (Steven Stahl).
Writer-director exhibits smart dialog, a knack for detail, and compassion to his characters — and luckily so: The gay and Latino characters veer dangerously close to offensive stereotype, collision avoided by the film’s big heart.
Castilla isn’t quite so fortunate in other areas. Whimsy turns cutesy in a pair of dream sequences — title refers to Sam’s dream in which she sees herself as an embryo inside a watermelon — and pic’s repeated use of underwater metaphors is obvious and cloying.
Lovingly shot by Irek Hartowicz, pic looks like a lot more than its $ 1 million budget. Other tech credits are fine, particularly Ana Araiz’s well-chosen musical backdrops.
Cast is terrific. Michael Allinson limns the best manservant since John Gielgud donned white gloves for “Arthur.”