Wisconsin Film Festival Spotlight: “The Amazing Catfish”

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Tickets for the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival went on sale last Saturday, and each day between now and the start of the festival on April 3, I’ll be zooming in on one of the more than 140 films playing at the festival. If you have suggestions about films you’d like to know more about as you’re planning your festival experience, let me know in comments.

The Amazing Catfish” (Friday, April 4, 2:30 p.m., UW-Elvehjem)

During the first scene of “The Amazing Catfish,” where we see a young woman carefully separating the purple Froot Loops out from her cereal bowl, I feared that “The Amazing Catfish” would be an unbearable quirkfest. Instead, first-time director Claudia Saint-Luce has made a highly bearable quirkfest, a gently moving and funny tale of strangers connecting in the face of tragedy.

The young woman Claudia (Ximena Ayala) seems almost feral, a troubled loner wandering the streets of Guadalajara, her hair fallen in front of her face as if she’s perpetually in hiding. Forced to enter the hospital because of appendicitis, she strikes up a friendship with the seriously ill single mother Martha (Lisa Owen) in the bed next to hers.

Martha invites Claudia to come home with her, as one does with strangers in indie movies like this, and soon Claudia is swept up into the chaotic life of the family’s apartment, as three older sisters and one young brother compete for attention and space, Martha watching affectionately from her sickbed. Some of the best scenes of “Amazing Catfish” simply capture the untamed, loving dynamic of this cramped apartment.

Much of the film deals with the messy, intersecting problems that the four children have, especially as their mother grows sicker, and how Claudia’s sincere attempts to help them bring herself back to life as well. The movie ends with a beach vacation that everyone, deep down, knows will be the last the family will be able to take together. But that seems to only intensify the joy in scenes where they play in the surf or build sandcastles — acclaimed cinematographer Agnes Godard does a masterful job with these scenes, which open up the film both visually and emotionally.

“The Amazing Catfish” is no knockout, but it is genial and affecting, a familiar story that still works on you.

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