REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
“Treading Water” is a mash up of a coming of age romance and a disease of the week melodrama, with a streak of magical realism thrown in for good measure.
The film is largely set in a museum dedicated to Guillermo Garibai. Guillermo Garibai? Does the name ring even subliminally familiar to you? The film posits the existence of an International Guillermo Garibai Foundation. It supposedly certifies residential buildings around the world as having once been his residence. The problem is that many viewers will mistakenly conclude that Garibai is a fictitious character. The likelihood of this misperception is enhanced by the zany quality of “Treading Water.” Some will perceive the film to be an unsuccessful effort to channel Wes Anderson.
In actuality, Garibai was born in 1936 and became a celebrated crooner in his native Mexico. In 1963, inspired by a string of English-language hits, he moved to Toronto. During Garibai’s stay there, he recorded two of his biggest hits, “Couple in a Bubble” and “So Far Away.” Toronto is a lovely, cosmopolitan city. However, it is difficult to divine why Garibai chose it as a location to advance his career as a singer.
It is a curious conceit to invoke a character, unknown to most audience members, as a pivotal frame of reference. It doesn’t help matters that the film had an underdeveloped sense of time and place. Audiences are left to speculate when and where the film is set.
Mica grows up on a home, which his mother, Sophie (Ariadna Gil) and father, Richard (Don McKellar), have turned into a make-shift Guillermo Garibai museum. The walls are festooned with kitschy paraphernalia from Garibai’s life. Stachions and velvet ropes demarcate portions of the house as a shrine.
Mica’s mother conducts enthusiastic tours of the home for Garibai’ supposed cadre of devotees. Mica’s sense of privacy is vitiated by having total strangers routinely traipse through his living space. Even as Mica is taking a bath, his mother nonchalantly escorts tourists into the room to cite a famous incident involving a broken perfume bottle.
However, that’s not even Mica’s biggest problem. Inexplicably, he stinks. From the day of his birth, Mica emitted a pungent aroma. The film depicts the obstetrician grimacing when Mica entered the world. Mica’s concerned parents drag him to a series of pediatricians. Each assures them that the condition is innocuous, then writes a prescription for a proprietary brand of soap bearing the doctor’s name.
Eventually, Mica is diagnosed with a rare condition, trimethylaminuria. Again, the viewer is left to speculate on whether the syndrome actually exists or is concocted for the benefit of this whimsical film. For what it’s worth, trimethylaminuria is a rare medical syndrome. It results from an individual’s inability to metabolize certain food substances. Those afflicted with the condition smell like rotten fish.
Of course, smelling like rotten fish is socially stigmatizing. Mica is singled out for bullying by his grade school classmates. He doesn’t have a single friend.
When Mica’s mother throws a birthday party for him, only one little girl, Laura, shows up. She seems to be unphased by the fact that Mica is malodorous. However, Mica antagonizes her and she abruptly departs. Mica is left to spend his birthday all alone. It constitutes a poignant moment.
As a grown up, Mica (Douglas Smith from HBO’s “Big Love”) continues to be a social pariah. We see him receiving psychoanalysis from a therapist (Carrie-Ann Moss), who exhibits some questionable professional conduct. Mica misconstrues them as a romantic overture.
Mica loves to go swimming at a local health club. Being in the chlorinated pool apparently obfuscates his stench. While there, Mica meets a young woman. She turns out to be Laura (Zoe Kravitz). She has blossomed into an attractive female with a well-toned body. Given a second chance at a relationship with Laura, will the socially inept Mica sabotage his prospects once again?
“Treading Water” has a certain undeniable sweetness to it. The character of Laura, both as a young girl and as an adult is adorable. As Mica’s mother, Ariadna Gil, exudes a bubbly quality, It contrasts with her dour husband’s temperament.
Unfortunately, the screenplay by Cal y Mayor (who also directed) and Javier Gullon is riddled with unanswered questions. Why is Mica’s dad such a jerk? How will psychoanalysis help relieve Mica’s central problem of trimethylaminuria? Why is Laura is oblivious to Mica’s stench? There are additional problems in Laura’s back story that are poorly explicated. Pivotal moments in the film, such as Mica’s mother being run over by a truck, are treated in a cavalier fashion.
The late-film introduction of Guillermo Garibai (Gonzalo Vega) adds to the confusion. Is the scene supposed to be taking place in reality or some fantasy universe? Vega’s performance provides the film with a outsized personality and a welcome infusion of energy. The concluding scene, an elaborate production number with Vega singing a Garibai standard is a vast improvement over the film’s antecedent text.
Unfortunately, it is too little, too late to save “Treading Water.”
**1/2 No MPAA rating 92 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose.com.