Claudia Sainte-Luce's The Amazing Catfish offers a classic example of a familiar premise done with enough intelligence and heartfelt conviction that it rises above its potentially cliché trappings. It's yet another domestic drama, albeit one in which a clan is seen through the perspective of a rootless outsider. The details of said outsider's life, as Sainte-Luce economically establishes in the film's opening moments, suggest the kind of insufferable whimsy that stunk up Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's Little Miss Sunshine: In her bedroom, Claudia (Ximena Ayala) is seen starting her day by taking a few units of Froot Loops and laying them out on her pillowcase for no apparent reason before eating the rest of her cereal; then, we see a particular interaction at her supermarket day job, in which she hands a package of sausage to a shopper before the shopper passive-aggressively places the unwanted bag elsewhere, leaving Claudia to pick it up. The potential of Sundance-patented quirk isn't promising, to say the least.
But then, during an appendicitis-wrought hospital stay, Claudia begins to interact with Martha (Lisa Owen), who charitably decides to bring the lonely girl into her home to meet her family, and The Amazing Catfish begins to reveal a few welcome tweaks of formula up its sleeve. Martha's family—sans patriarch, as her last husband died from AIDS and left her with HIV—isn't dysfunctional in the expected twee or melodramatic ways. Some members may be dealing with more serious personal problems than others, such as the chubby Wendy (Wendy Guillén), who resorts to cutting herself as a result of how ignored she feels, but even at their tensest, the family dynamics are treated in enough of a low-key way that they feel grounded in realism rather than smacking of screenwriting contrivance. This particular clan functions more or less quite well as a unit, held together by Martha's firm yet warmhearted manner. This is the kind of family that Claudia, an orphan since the age of two, has desired for years—which makes Martha's own imminent AIDS-induced death sentence all the more subtly poignant.
Sainte-Luce may laudably avoid most of the pitfalls of this subgenre of comedy-drama, but the characters and situations she portrays can't quite escape a generic feel that threatens to dull out one's interest in the film. Still, there's a genuine depth of feeling that courses through even the most shopworn of scenes, fully in keeping with Martha's own refusal to unduly wallow in self-pity at her inevitable demise. In its later stretches, The Amazing Catfish proves to be inspiring in the best sense, swimming in heartwarming sentiment without forcing sentimentality down the viewer's throat. You may not ultimately remember these specific characters in the end so much as the gradually tautening sense the filmmaker evokes of people quietly yet thunderously saying “no” to despair in the face of a profound familial loss.