“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” would rep a good alternative title for “Maria and I,” a refreshingly upbeat take on the special relationship between a girl with autism and her cartoonist father. Balancing exemplary sensitivity, crisp observation and humor, this visually witty docu deals only fleetingly with the bleaker side of things before showing that happiness is ultimately a state of mind. Well received in Spain following its mid-July release, the defiantly feel-good “Maria” deserves to make further acquaintances at fests.
Voiceover by Miguel Gallardo, on whose comicstrips the docu is based, accompanies drawings he made of his daughter Maria as a baby. These are intercut with footage of Gallardo and Maria on a plane, bound for the island vacation the docu will record, and interviews with the heavy-smoking Gallardo and his ex-wife, Maria’s mother, May Sanchez. They movingly recall their slow-dawning discovery that all was not well with their daughter.
Delightful 14-year-old Maria is happiest when she’s eating. Her father describes her as living in another dimension, having taken refuge inside herself from the welter of stimuli around her. Seen here whooping with happiness or protest, or sitting for lengthy periods watching sand or torn-up paper fall through her fingers, Maria can recall the name of everyone she’s ever met, and her father dutifully draws their faces for her.
The strongest sequences are those featuring father and daughter at play together, whether in the pool or simply lying on a bed, sharing a quiet, nonverbal understanding. In one of many spot-on metaphors, Maria is herself compared to an island, to which other people only have access at low tide.
Both parents come across as decent, reflective and unembittered people, able to verbalize their experience with moving clarity and a complete lack of sentimentality. “I don’t want people to treat her like a normal person,” Gallardo reveals. “I want them to treat her like a queen.” The darker side is left to Sanchez, who bravely expresses the wish that Maria predeceases her, because nobody can look after their daughter as well as they do.
Docu translates Gallardo’s powers of observation into some nicely rendered animated sequences featuring Maria herself, at one point taking a visually daring stab at repping her view of the world.
Editing craftily splices animation together with video footage and talking heads. Lensing frequently bathes the proceedings in the intense light of the Canary Islands, giving things a bright, zingy look in line with the docu’s optimistic nature. Gentle piano-based score by Pascal Comelade further underscores the mood.