A sentimental family drama about a man bringing up baby becomes a searching, quietly subversive inquiry into family gender roles in “Anything You Want,” the compelling third feature from Spanish helmer Achero Manas. Showing the attempts of a bereaved father to become — literally — a mother to his daughter, the pic overcomes its flaws via its bravery in tackling a thorny topic and its skill in avoiding the pitfalls. Pic combines food for thought with emotion, and reps a return to form for Manas following 2003’s disappointing “November.” Universal resonance likely will lead to limited offshore play.
Leo (Juan Diego Botto) is a family lawyer with a wife, Alicia (Ana Risueno), and 4-year-old daughter, Dafne (Lucia Fernandez). He’s becoming increasingly irritable over the petty family crises he is called upon to deal with. Fifteen minutes in, the already-ill Alicia collapses and dies on a playground, leaving Dafne weeping over her body in the first of several emotional but finely judged scenes.
Dafne seems to blame Leo for Alicia’s death and declares that she now wants a “fake mother.” Leo enlists the help of his ex, Marta (Najwa Nimri), in the role, but it’s clear it isn’t going to work out, especially after Leo calls Marta “Alicia” as they are making love. Marta takes Leo to see the cabaret act of an aging transvestite comedian, emotionally scarred Alex (Jose Luis Gomez); after Alex flirts with Leo, the younger man hurls abuse at him and angrily storms out.
One night Dafne asks Leo to put on some makeup and pretend to be her mother. Initially reluctant, Leo goes along with the game: Soon he is visiting Alex, seeking forgiveness and soliciting advice on how to convincingly dress as a woman. Problems inevitably arise for this new Leo, particularly when Dafne starts telling her school friends that her mother is alive.
All of this might sound risible on paper, but script and perfs combine to ease viewers through Leo’s oddball reaction to Dafne’s request while crucially keeping them on Leo’s side. However, Leo’s defiant decision to go public with his altruistic transvestism, leading to much of what happens in the second half, is never sufficiently explained.
“Anything You Want’s” simple, striking premise allows the pic to raise thoroughly contempo issues about parental commitment to kids, gender roles, machismo and the conflict between the contradictory demands placed on parents by society and children.
The nicely spare, well-organized script cuts straight to the emotional bone, even in its foreshadowing and allegory; an early scene in which Leo plays dead for fun prefigures Alicia’s actual death, while Dafne’s fear of monsters parallels Leo’s initial homophobia.
Botto has too rarely found roles suited to his considerable talents. Here, the entire dramatic weight of the pic falls on him, and he comes through with flying colors, delivering a quiet, contained performance without histrionics, and showing the simple determination, once he has decided to sacrifice his dignity for Dafne, to just heroically get on with the job.
Opposite him, Fernandez delivers one of the great child perfs of recent Spanish cinema as the charmingly serious-faced, un-cutesy Dafne. She is superbly directed, holding her own through several intense faceoffs with Botto.
On the downside, the script occasionally slips over into sentimentality, and its air of solemn political correctness might irritate some. David Omedes’ lensing is spare and clean. The sweet piano- and guitar-based score tends toward blandness, but is crucial in creating the pic’s attractively downbeat mood. Modulation might be a problem, however; on the print caught, the score occasionally came close to drowning out the dialogue.