Emitting the unpleasant stench of over-affectation, “Treading Water” slaps together its particular peculiarities with such randomness, it’s as if the film were conceived from blindly throwing disparate elements at the wall. Analeine Cal y Mayor’s feature helming debut piles on the arbitrary quirkiness in recounting the curious story of Mica, who’s born with the cursed body odor of a fish (hence the film’s original title, “The Boy Who Smells Like Fish”). What ensues is a magic-realist fable in which Mica attempts to overcome the social and romantic anxieties he develops thanks to his scent, all while living in a house that doubles as a tourist museum-cum-shrine to famed ’60s Mexican singer Guillermo Garibai (Gonzalo Vega), whose portraits and knick-knacks decorate its walls and velvet-roped hallways. It’s a setup of confused contrivances, and one that, despite proficient direction and a winning lead performance, is unlikely to make many commercial waves.
Mayor’s film opens with an animated sequence of an in-vitro fetus sprouting fingers, toes and then scales, which he scrapes off before seeing a mysterious mermaid figure as he exits the womb and into the waiting arms of his saintly mother, Sophie (Ariadna Gil). Like her doctors and her no-good husband, Richard (Don McKellar), Sophie immediately notices that the baby boy, Mica, radiates a distinctly marine-y aroma. In response, as both a kid and a teen (played by Douglas Smith), Mica spends copious time scrubbing himself with prescription soaps in the bathtub – the only place he feels any sense of comfort and relaxation, aside from the couch of therapist Catherine (Carrie-Anne Moss), with whom he shares his frustrations, fears and freaky nightmares about mass shootings. The only non-relative who doesn’t meanly judge him, Catherine soon becomes an object of lonely Mica’s romantic inclinations.
Cal y Mayor and Javier Gullon’s script, however, abruptly drops this subplot once Mica’s feelings redirect to Laura (Zoe Kravitz), a fellow swimmer at the local pool who tellingly wears a mermaid necklace and, years earlier, had failed to befriend Mica at his childhood birthday party. Unfortunately, Mica and Laura’s aquatic meet-cute is handled as clunkily as Sophie’s untimely traffic-accident death is dealt with flippantly, the result being that, despite its strained atmosphere of fairy-tale whimsy, “Treading Water” often comes off as less heartfelt than it’s striving to be.
More problematic still, Mica’s rare aromatic condition — which turns out to have a medical name, Trimethylaminuria, and can be mitigated through dietary restrictions — never shares any narrative or thematic correlation to Garibai. The singer’s hit single “Couple in a Bubble” would seem to hold at least some minor promise of linking the artist’s music and Mica’s water-centric issues. Yet Cal y Mayor instead treats the crooner as merely a cutesy embellishment to enhance her material’s idiosyncratic tone, making his role in these proceedings feel more mystifying than enchanting.
While Mica and Laura’s budding amour eventually tightens the script’s focus, the story never coheres into anything more than a groan-worthy hybrid of coming-of-age and fish-out-of-water (pun intended) tales, replete with fairy godfather Garibai performing a closing song-and-dance number. Nonetheless, Cal y Mayor’s direction is far more assured than her writing, her visuals marked by alternately symmetrical and off-kilter compositions that speak to Mica’s desire to transcend his weirdo-outsider status and fit in.
As Mica, the wide-eyed Smith expresses a convincing mixture of isolated teenage angst, sorrow and anger. Moreover, he exudes a gangly awkwardness that serves him well during the film’s few moments of genuine out-of-left-field comedy, the finest being a sequence in which Mica, spying on Laura through an outside window, is roundly chastised by a gardener for trampling (literally — and, one can also assume, aromatically) his flowers.