A churning maelstrom of events including theft, murder and imprisonment threatens to swamp two girls in love in “The Fish Child,” from Argentine helmer Lucia Puenzo. Sophomore effort, based on the helmer’s own novel, might at first seem radically different from her languid but powerful debut, “XXY,” though it does reteam Puenzo with that pic’s gamine lead, Ines Efron. “Child’s” fractured, fast-paced narrative holds the audience’s interest, even if at times it feels as though there are enough twists for a long-running telenovela. Pic should be a natural for LGBT fests and beyond.
Though focusing on two gals rather than two guys, the movie has a lot in common with Marcelo Pineyro’s queer cult hit “Burnt Money.” In both films, a couple against all odds turn to crime to realize their dream of being together, and though their stories start in Argentina — Buenos Aires, to be exact — they soon detour to neighboring countries. A preference for visual panache to narrative fluidity is clear in both films, as is a simmering erotic tension that constitutes a large part of their appeal.
Teenager Lala (Efron), the daughter of a Buenos Aires judge (Pep Munne), is in love with Ailin (Mariela Vitale), the household’s 20-year-old Paraguayan maid. They steal anything they can lay their hands on to save up for their planned escape to Lake Ypoa in Paraguay, where Ailin grew up. But because of events involving Lala’s dad that only gradually become clear, Ailin ends up in prison, while Lala finds herself at Lake Ypoa alone, where she investigates her lover’s dark past.
On the surface, the pic is miles away from “XXY,” but still Puenzo — who’s had to change many things from her novel, starting with the fact it was narrated by the girls’ dog — seems more concerned with atmosphere and rhythm than with precise plot points. Grainy 16mm lensing feels just right, and Hugo Primeiro’s editing is primarily concerned with balancing action and suspense with overall clarity.
The skinny, light-haired Efron (“Glue,” “The Headless Woman”) has a knack for finding offbeat projects, even though she hasn’t shown much range — and here again plays an awkward, wayward girl who seems to swallow her words.
Voluptuous, dark-haired newcomer Vitale was clearly cast as a contrast to Efron, but easily holds her own. Puenzo’s unobtrusive insistence on what separates the girls — from their class status to their physical appearance — makes their union feel more deserved, even though a prolonged shouting match in prison in which they thrash out all their issues is not as involving as it should be.
Pic’s title is a reference to a fish child said to reside in Lake Ypoa. It gives Puenzo an excuse to indulge in a wonderfully conceived scene with magical-realist touches in which Lala dives into the lake for an encounter with the title character.