Argentine director Lucia Puenzo’s sophomore effort, The Fish Child (aka El Niño Pez), based on her own novel by the same name, is equal parts telenovela (albeit a dark one) and traditional magical realist tale. Early reviews have called it a South American Thelma and Louise but there is absolutely no hint of Hollywood here. In fact, even the way it’s shot, on 16 mm film, gives it a very grainy quality, which is just one example of how the director is more concerned with the way things look than how the plot unfolds. The result is a movie that draws you in even if you’re baffled by it.
As for the heroines, these aren’t two grown women headed on a mini-vaca that goes awry but rather two young girls from completely different social classes (Lala, the daughter of a well-known Buenos Aires judge and Ailin, the household’s curvy Paraguayan maid) who are madly in love with each other and will lie, cheat, steal, and kill in order to be together. Their dream is to collect enough money to run away together to Ailin’s birthplace, Lake Ypoa in Paraguay, and live in a beautiful house by the water. Here’s where the title comes into play. It is in Lake Ypoa that the legendary niño pez (the fish child) is rumored to live. Puenzo even indulges us with a brief Gabriel Garcia Marquez-like scene in which Lala goes for a swim and comes face to face with the fish child—a nice touch. But when Lala’s father is mysteriously murdered, their dream is derailed, albeit temporarily. Ailin is unjustly accused of the crime and sent to a women’s prison, while LaLa heads to Lake Ypoa to learn more about her lover’s dark past, including the incest she suffered as a child by way of her own father.
It is during this time that one comes to understand and even appreciate Ailin’s complex, troubled character. What remains unclear is the appeal the sultry Paraguayan (played by Mariela Vitale) sees in the skinny, at times odd-looking Lala, played by Ines Efron, besides of course the old “opposites attract” rule. Then again, Efron played a similar character quite well in fellow Argentine Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, so maybe her awkward quirkiness is endearing on some level. There are interesting moments of social criticism, too, like when a high-ranking official at the women’s prison is busted for sneaking inmates into his home late at night and exploiting them sexually. He’s subsequently punished, by none other than Lala herself—who at this point has attempted to shave her head but instead ends up with a butchered (no pun intended) haircut.
There is a quiet eroticism from beginning to end that in many ways is the glue that holds The Fish Child together. Overall, the work of Puenzo, who impressed critics at the Cannes Film Festival last year with XXY, intrigues just the right amount—even if it doesn’t manage to thrill, as it might have intended.