While The Fish Child is pitched as something of a younger, sexier “Argentine Thelma and Louise”, the reality is that it’s several shades darker; with more death and sexual violence then you’ll see in about twelve other queer films with the same general level of drama. Don’t let that stop you, however – this is a special film, about an adolescent lesbian love affair that is so much more, personal tragedy and the real meaning of family. It’s not always an easy watch, but director Lucia Puenzo (who is adapting the story from her own novel) has crafted something that is worlds away from the majority of lesbian-oriented cinema.
Lala (Ines Efron) is an upper-class girl living with her famous father – an author and judge – her addiction-addled brother, and her elegant, world-traveling mother in a beautiful Buenos Aires estate. She’s pixie-ish and beautiful, carrying on a long-running love affair with the family maid, Ailin (Mariela Vitale), who comes from the other side of the tracks. They’re young and idealistic, planning an escape from their class-clashing environment – but it’s immediately clear that Ailin is far world-wearier than her dreamy girlfriend.
Nowhere is this made more apparent than in Ailin’s introductory sequence, where she wakes up to sex (of completely ambiguous consent) with a man, after which she begins her long walk to the upper crust neighborhood she works in. We first meet her at the twilight of her teenage years, where she finds a tiny puppy on the side of the road (in a pile of trash, actually), which she brings along as a present for Lala.
In fact, Ailin has had things far worse, and they will be worse still before the film is out. Not long after the introduction, we learn that Lala’s father has been raping his young employee for who knows how long – and he even slimily attempts to make her feel like “part of the family” by insisting that she eat at the dinner table and sing for the family. When Lala finds out about the abuse, the escape plan takes on a very different tone.
The story skips back and forth in time until events align largely in the present – where we find Lala on the lamb and Ailin in prison for the murder of Lala’s father. Who’s actually at fault comes into play later on, but the fact that Ailin is immediately blamed speaks volumes about her relative position in society.
Lala bums around Paraguay for a while, hanging out at Ailin’s old house with her girlfriend’s estranged father – an out of work TV star who hasn’t seen his daughter in close to ten years. When she finds out about the prison sentence, the film immediately shifts gears. There are guns, corrupt cops, and even a rescue mission in the cards, as Lala fully transforms from dreamy rich girl to woman on a mission – complete with a badass hair-chopping sequence and a hard-boiled change in attitude.
Running throughout the film – and giving meaning to the title – is a legend that Ainlin recites to Lala, about a “fish child” who lives in the water near her childhood home. At first, the tale is mysterious and evocative, prompting even a trippy underwater dream sequence for Lala’s down-and-out in Paraguay segment, but the true meaning of the story – and the absolutely crushing secret it hides – is far, far darker than we’re first led to believe.
The actresses carry the piece beautifully. Vitale gives Ailin – a young woman who’s suffered a lifetime of abuse – such vivaciousness that it’s impossible not to fall for her. Efron’s Lala is naïve at first, but her transformation into a brave, audacious badass is a wonder to behold, and her love for Ailin is almost palpable.
The chemistry between the leads is fantastic – despite all their difficulties, it’s easy to buy them as a couple. Whether they’re making out in Lala’s bedroom planning their runaway, reminiscing in the bath, or hitting the dance floor, the early scenes are youthful and fun, while later ones pack a heavy emotional punch.
Heavy is the word of the day here, since the film deals with the ugly underside of class tension and the confounding elements of sexual abuse. This is a world where powerful, uncaring men rule everything – Lala’s father, the police running Ailin’s prison, even Ailin’s father before he left her. The only remotely positive male figure in the film is a friend of the girls’, who first buys a stolen painting from them and aids them later on.
It’s a corrupt, scary world, but ultimately, one in which female power has a chance to prevail, chiefly because women – especially young women – are so grotesquely underestimated.
In this way, the Thelma and Louise comparison rings true. Fish Child has a closer relative in The Brave One, and possibly some of the early scenes from Monster, but the similarities end there. Lucia Puenzo’s creation stands on its own, with fantastic performances carrying a tough, yet ultimately empowering tale.
Watch the trailer for The Fish Child (El Niño Pez) below:
The Fish Child comes out on DVD on July 26 and is available for pre-order now at Wolfe Video.