GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
TLA Releasing, 2004
Starring: Jose Luis Garcia-Perez, David Castillo, Empar Ferrer, Elvira Lindo, Arno Chevrier, Mario Arias
Unrated, 98 minutes
We've all seen similar stories before. A man or woman, unprepared for parenthood, is suddenly saddled with a relative's rambunctious child. After a rocky start, they become bosom buddies. For the third act, an overbearing, but well-intentioned, relative initiates a court battle for custody of the child. Hollywood will regurgitate the same tired formula ad infinitum (usually as a star vehicle for the latest flash-in-the-pan obnoxious child star) while heaping enough schmaltz onto the predictable plot to send a diabetic into insulin shock.
What a refreshing change of pace Bear Cub, the new Spanish film by director Miguel Albaledejo, turned out to be. Jose Luis Garcia-Perez stars as Pedro, a successful gay dentist who suddenly finds himself the reluctant guardian of his sister's 9 year old boy. Pedro is a free-spirited, middle-aged bear. His sister, Violeta, leaves her son Bernardo in his care for two weeks while she vacations in India with her new boyfriend. Pedro clears his apartment of drugs and porn before the boy arrives but Bernardo is a perceptive child who understands more than he admits. Pedro frets about the boy crimping his social life, while Bernardo worries that his mother won't return. When she is arrested for drug trafficking in India, Pedro becomes the boy's guardian.
This might sound like the very formula that I mocked in the opening paragraph, but Bear Cub manages to put a fresh spin on a familiar story. When's the last time that you saw such a "feel-good" movie begin with a threeway reflected in a glass-framed painting of Jean Genet?
When Bernardo's grandmother arrives, seeking custody of the kid, even this plot development is treated differently. Not once does she object to her grandson being raised by a man who is gay. She has other reasons. Her son died of a drug overdose and she has always blamed Violeta for his death. Because of this, Violeta has prevented her mother-in-law from seeing her grandchild. She is a lonely woman and the boy is all she has left. She becomes ruthless in her attempt to gain custody but - for a change in movies like this - homophobia is not her motivation. This is a huge step forward.
The themes throughout Bear Cub are universal and life-affirming. European filmmakers are so ahead of Hollywood when it comes to avoiding cliches, and the well-crafted script is filled to the brim with honesty and truths. Sexuality and identity is explored in subtle and sometimes humorous ways. For example, Bernardo's mother is convinced that her son is gay, a notion that Pedro rejects - even when another of his friends suggests the same thing. The boy, however, is comfortable with his uncle and in one striking scene he decides to "butch it up" and asks for his page-boy hair to be buzzed off.
It's easy to see why Bear Cub received so much acclaim on the festival circuit; it transcends the conventions of most queer films. It was nice to see, for a change, a film populated by bears rather than the usual young buffed gym bunnies. None of the usual stock characters appear in Bear Cub; there are no Jack McFarlands camping it up, no female confidants, and no straight guy make-overs. Instead, we have a flawed hero, with real issues, who is complex and fully developed. He is hardly a virtuous role model; he smokes pot, he is promiscuous, he visits the baths. He doesn't apologize for his life and nobody else (including the grandmother) seems to have issues with his sexuality. His character slowly acquires quiet strength and dignity. In one of the filmÕs best written scenes, his long distance lover wants to become his life partner but Pedro pulls back, refusing commitment.
The same is true for the boy. Yes he is cute, but he is a far cry from Macualy Culkin and his ilk. The boy is very independent and wise beyond his years but is, thankfully, not a streetwise punk. It is interesting to note that the boy takes over the cooking in their shared apartment and their familial duties are often reversed. There is a marvelous scene where Pedro buys a leather jacket for Bernardo, who afterwards teases his uncle for checking out the tailor. The amused Pedro insists that the tailor was checking him out and that there is a difference.
In a dramatic surprise, that I won't reveal here, we find out just how wise the boy is, and how much he understands and feels empathy for his uncle. There is no contrived scene where Pedro and Bernardo suddenly bond against all odds. Even the grandmother, who in most films would be a cartoon villain, emerges as a sad and sympathetic character with needs of her own.
There's something for everyone in this film. There is ample sex, (at least in the unrated version), to placate viewers who fear that this might be a "chick flick." And those who like warm and fuzzy films will also be satisfied without being nauseated. Yes there are a couple of sentimental moments but it's never maudlin or cloying. Bear Cub is beautifully acted, written and directed. This isn't just a good gay film, it is a good film period.
Bear Cub is available in an R-rated version but I would avoid that one as the opening scene, and a few others, are probably butchered. The unrated DVD features a commentary by the star and a lengthy deleted scene that is worth a look. The film is letterboxed in its true 2:35:1 ratio, and is in Spanish with optional English subtitles.