Reactions to Claudia Sainte-Luce’s debut, “The Amazing Catfish,” will depend on whether audiences find the family at the pic’s heart to be charming as well as kooky. If yes, then this lively tale of a solitary young woman integrated into an eccentric one-parent household whose matriarch is dying will be a sweetly emotional experience, notwithstanding the tragedy. Those less enchanted by the clan and wanting a deeper exploration of the protag’s complexity won’t be so enthused, though Agnes Godard’s lensing has its own rewards. Despite reservations, “Catfish” should play swimmingly at fests and could even get limited arthouse nibbles.
One of the problems is the sense that there are two films here that Sainte-Luce hasn’t managed to integrate. The first begins with the opening frames, when Claudia (Ximena Ayala, “Bad Habits”) seems immersed in a bad dream though she appears awake. Ominous industrial sounds disturb the dark space, and slightly later, a barely perceptible, repeated cry of “Help me” can be heard. It’s all deeply unsettling, adding an unresolved level of mystery about Claudia, whose largely mute isolation is oppressive.
The first conversation takes place about 10 minutes in, after she experiences severe stomach pains and a doctor asks if she’s pregnant; instead, she has appendicitis. Martha (Lisa Owen), in the adjacent hospital bed, is far sicker, with an unnamed but chronic disease she contracted from her dead husband. Despite Martha’s unhappy prognosis, she has a glow about her, and the chaotic warmth exuded by her family of three daughters and one son offers a sense of inclusion Claudia has never felt (it’s unclear why Claudia has zero family or friends).
When they’re all discharged, Martha offers Claudia a ride and welcomes the young woman into her disordered house, a place whose messy emotional and physical aspects give Claudia a sense of belonging. Soon she’s taking the younger kids, Mariana (Andrea Baeza) and Armando (Alejandro Ramirez Munoz), to school; helping second-oldest Wendy (Wendy Guillen) with chores; and assisting the eldest and most responsible, Ale (Sonia Franco), to look after Martha. Despite Martha’s increasingly weakening condition, her warmth of spirit demonstrates that “dysfunctional” is a relative term.
An interesting angle is the absence of menfolk, though their abandonment, either through death or desertion, remains an unspoken motif. Claudia’s confidence grows in this hothouse atmosphere, and her acceptance as part of the household is practically seamless. Audiences getting into the spirit of it all will be caught up by the energy, while others will find the characters more on the annoying side. Wendy, very much the “typical” fat girl, talks too much, cuts herself and complains that no one pays attention to her, yet Sainte-Luce doesn’t develop her beyond a brief confessional moment that’s never referred to again. Ale’s personality needs expansion, and Claudia, who starts off as the most interesting figure, remains too much of a cipher.
While her screenplay needs strengthening, the tyro helmer demonstrate a satisfying confidence behind the camera. Sainte-Luce lucked out in getting Godard as her d.p., and the top lenser provides beautiful images that take full advantage of the excellent lighting.