What happens when a sexually free-spirited, HIV-positive dentist becomes the unofficial custodian of his 9-year-old nephew? That's the question posed by Bear Cub, a wise, sweet-natured Spanish film, in which an uncle, Pedro (Jose Luis Garcia-Perez), takes in his smart, very hip young nephew Bernardo (David Castillo) after Bernardo's mother is detained abroad.
Pedro is a denizen of Madrid's "bear" subculture of proudly paunchy gay men who don't shave their bodies and who refuse to cultivate the chiseled Calvin Klein ideal of eternal boyishness.
Bernardo is precociously attuned to the lifestyles of urban sophisticates. His widowed mother (and Pedro's older sister), Violeta (Elvira Lindo), is a high-strung, superannuated hippie who leaves Bernardo with his uncle when she impulsively decides to take a two-week jaunt to India with her latest boyfriend. When Violeta is arrested at the border for drug trafficking and held in jail indefinitely, Pedro's babysitting duties become temporary guardianship.
If Bear Cub were an American movie or television play, you can bet it would be puritanically wringing its hands over Pedro's supposed inappropriateness as a guardian and role model, not to mention the possible health risks Bernardo faces living with an HIV-infected relative. It would probably involve a fierce court battle, a death scene and a final, tearful reunion between the son and his morally chastened mother.
But Bear Cub calmly defies expectations at every turn. It opens with a fairly graphic gay threesome. It goes out of its way to portray HIV infection as something other than a death sentence. It also explores Pedro's relationship with a flight attendant and part-time lover who wants a full-time commitment that Pedro is unwilling to make. It even follows Pedro to a gay bathhouse.
Directed by: Miguel Albaladejo
Starring: Jose Luis Garcia-Perez (Pedro), David Castillo (Bernardo), Diana Cerezo (Lola), Mario Arias (Javi), Arno Chevrier (Manuel), Josele Roman (Gloria), Elvira Lindo (Violeta), Empar Ferrer (Dona Teresa) and Felix Alvarez (Dani)
Running time: 99 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
The movie brings in a potential villain in Violeta's widowed, estranged mother-in-law, Dona Teresa (Empar Ferrer), a lonely old woman who blames Violeta for her son's drug-related death. Eager to re-establish a family connection, Dona Teresa wants to take over Bernardo's upbringing and send him to a good school. But Pedro and his nephew have formed a strong attachment, and the boy is reluctant to leave his uncle. A legal battle ensues, but there is no high drama.
The film, directed by Miguel Albaladejo, who wrote the screenplay with Salvador Garcia, refuses to demonize the grandmother, even though she is ruthless enough to have Pedro followed and to obtain his medical records to bolster her cause.
In his casual but deeply caring way, Pedro is a responsible guardian. When he sternly scolds a friend for rolling a joint in front of Bernardo, the boy chimes in and admits that he has rolled many joints for his mother.
Without the endearing, canny performance of Castillo, whose Bernardo is still a child beneath his wised-up shell, Bear Cub might have been an uncomfortably gooey uncle-and-moppet odd-couple comedy.
And at the end, Bear Cub does have a brush with sentimentality. But by then, its integrity and low-key truthfulness has been certified in a dozen different ways.