Trimethylaminuria is an uncommon metabolic disorder first described in 1970 that affects the body’s ability to produce the enzyme flavin containing monooxygenase 3 (FMO3). This causes trimethylamine to build up and release in excess through a person’s sweat, urine and breath. Trimethylamine gives off a strong, fishy body odor, which is why the disease is more colloquially referred to as, “fish malodor syndrome.” While the disorder is incurable, those afflicted can reduce the fishy smell by avoiding foods like beans, red meats and, understandably, fish.
Trimethylaminuria is the cause of our protagonist’s condition and the starting point for writer/director Analeine Cal y Mayor’s debut film. Although the titular boy, Mica (two child actors, then Douglas Smith), doesn’t learn the specifics of his illness until young adulthood, his life is altered from birth as the doctor in his delivery room takes a quick, unpleasant sniff of his newborn head before handing Mica over to his mom, with a manufactured smile.
Soon, Mica is the unpopular boy at school being picked on by the others. His mother (Ariadna Gil, perhaps most identifiable to American audiences as the mother in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth) earnestly whisks Mica from doctor to doctor, acquiring differing brands of prescription soaps, all of which prove unhelpful for her son.
The Boy Who Smells Like Fish finds many amusing idiosyncrasies in the characters’ attempts to remedy or cope with Mica’s fishy odor. Each brief inhale followed by the slightest of grimaces proves consistently chuckle-worthy, just subtle enough to remain amusing. Cal y Mayor, along with her co-writer Javier Gullón, let running jokes play out just long enough. The bits that work, like Mica’s air freshener “necklace,” are brought back enough times to remain funny while also not overstaying their welcome. The filmmakers balance comedy and drama well, properly shifting between tones instead of falling victim to being one-note throughout.
Analeine Cal y Mayor uses the fish odor malady to construct her take on a coming-of-age story about a young boy outcast by his peers who grows into a shy, ineffectual young man. While this type of dramatic comedy can often be guilty of utilizing too many familiar tropes, The Boy Who Smells Like Fish finds some novel territory by framing the film around trimethylaminuria, making the story about more than just coming to terms with adulthood, but learning to overcome personal obstacles or disease. Fish odor syndrome is a rare condition, but as Mica’s compassionate therapist Catherine (Carrie-Anne Moss) reminds him, “We all have our own little quirks.” An inability to relate to Mica’s situation doesn’t prevent the character from deserving empathy. Although, who can’t relate on occasion to being worried about your own body odor?
The movie is a little more charming in its early stages. The sweet relationship between Mica and his concerned helicopter mom is heightened but somehow still accurate. These scenes illustrate the film’s tension with a little more subtly than the romance introduced later on in the film, and gives Analeine Cal y Mayor opportunities to include stylistic touches. Furthermore, the handling of Mica’s scenes as a baby accomplishes quite a bit of exposition without overtly stating all of the problems in dialog. They are clever set pieces crafted by the relatively new filmmaker.
However, not all is perfect here. In spite of attempts to add nuance to Zoë Kravitz’s Laura, the movie’s love interest, she mostly comes off as a manic pixie dream girl whose inclusion in the narrative serves to benefit the Mica character more than her own character. This comes as no fault to either Kravitz or her counterpart Douglas Smith, both of whom deliver charismatic performances. The young adult characters are simply underwritten, their backstories reduced to elements they keep veiled in the hopes of fulfilling a relationship.
Despite its underwhelming romantic elements, and the clichéd late arrival of a deus ex machina figure in the Garriaba character, the movie is ultimately enjoyable. The filmmakers keep the pace brisk, first carrying the viewer through Mica’s childhood and then not dwelling on any turn in the story for too long after it’s occurred. While it may not be substantive enough to satisfy audiences who have grown weary of the term, “dramedy,” fans of the genre should be delighted by what’s on offer here.
The Boy Who Smells Like Fish is a bright film, full of color. The intricate production design of Mica’s home, which doubles as a museum to the fictional singer and lothario Guillermo Garibai (Gonzalo Vega), is reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s work, notably The Royal Tenenbaums. While no one matches the perfect symmetry of Anderson’s work, The Boy Who Smells Like Fish is similarly an effective comedy and an effective drama. Not quite original enough to stand out amongst a crowded field coming-of-age stories, the experience of watching the movie is engrossing enough to be worthwhile. It’s a fun, cute and well-intentioned film that occasionally falls victim to a false moment, but still remains largely endearing.
The Boy Who Smells Like Fish is an amusing slant on the coming-of-age film that hits occasional false moments but never wears out its welcome.