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(2004) (Rodrigo Noya, Carmen Maura) (PG-13)

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Subtitled Drama: A precocious 8-year-old experiences and comments on the trials and tribulations of his life.
Valentin (RODRIGO NOYA) is a precocious 8-year-old who lives with his grandmother Abuela (CARMEN MAURA) in 1960s Argentina. Desirous of becoming an astronaut, the boy is constantly fixated on that. Yet, he also wants his absent businessman father (ALEJANDRO AGRESTI) to marry any of his girlfriends. That's so that the boy can have a mother figure in his life who will take the place of his real mother who he hasn't seen since he was three.

Since his grandfather died around a year ago, things haven't been the same in their house, and thus Valentin often hangs out with Rufo (MEX URTIZBEARA), his lovelorn pianist neighbor and enjoys visits from his uncle Chiche (JEAN PIERRE NOHER). Seemingly an adult trapped in a kid's body, Valentin has few friends, but finds an unlikely one in the form of 22-year-old Leticia (JULIETA CARDINALI) who just so happens to be dating his father.

As life throws various curveballs - both good and bad - his way, Valentin tries to make sense of his family, women and his place in the world.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Kids have a unique view of the world that's often quite refreshing to adults who've had theirs smashed, tainted and/or lost from the everyday trials and tribulations that life offers. That juvenile view is sometimes childish and/or often seen through rose-colored glasses. Yet, sometimes it's also quite astute, especially if the young world and life viewer is what's politely known as precocious.

I don't know if writer/director Alejandro Agresti ("Wind with the Gone," "A Night with Sabrina Love") could be described that way as a child, but he's placed such a character as the center of attraction and observations in his quirky drama "Valentin." Set in 1960s Argentina (which is when and where Agresti grew up), the story focuses on the 9-year-old title character who has a distinctive if slightly warped view of his little world.

While he aspires to be an astronaut one day (and is occasionally seen in homemade outer space gear), he's more immediately focused on finding himself a mother. He still has one, but hasn't seen here since he was three when she and the boy's father (played by Agresti) split, leaving Valentin's grandmother to raise him. The boy hopes that his father will marry any of his many girlfriends so that he can have a "normal" family life.

Very little, however, is normal about his or even him. Sporting oversized and thick glasses that probably helped bring about the term "nerd" (I can safely say that since I was one such kid with various pairs of such spectacles) and little or no contact with kids his age outside of school, the boy mostly lives in an adult and less than caring world. We know this not so much from what we see on the screen in terms of dialogue or action (although some such material is present), but rather by what Valentin tells us in voice over narration.

There's very little the boy doesn't comment on and he usually does so in one of those "beyond his years" fashions that some viewers will find charming while others will feel it's contrived and/or manipulative. I never really felt the latter despite an overabundance and over reliance on such a storytelling technique. Yet, the effort also didn't win me over wholeheartedly.

While young Rodrigo Noya ("Dibu 3") is perfectly cast and absolutely precious as the title character who has some rather good exchanges with various adults in his life, I couldn't help shake the feeling that I was watching a vehicle that never really goes anywhere. Despite the inclusion of various hardships and difficulties (the absentee parents, various deaths in the family before and during the story, etc.), the film is in need of a better, underlying plot.

Without that, we have what's essentially a series of vignettes -- sometimes tied together closely but at others rather loosely -- that constitute the effort. To be fair, life is pretty much like that in reality where we do one thing and then another, often without rhyme or reason. Nevertheless, the various scenes of Valentin practicing to be an astronaut, dealing with his family issues, hanging out with his single, pianist neighbor, etc. don't enable the film with much forward momentum.

I'm not saying that it needs more action, but rather a more consistent throughput. The various scenes and all of the fade-out and fade-in bits of filmmaking simply give the picture too much of a loose feel. Various individual parts and scenes are good and even sometimes terrific, but the overall film doesn't come close to exceeding the sum of its parts.

The best of which are scenes where the boy meets one of his dad's new girlfriends -- played by the gorgeous Julieta Cardinali ("A Night with Sabrina Love") -- and the two become fast friends. Nearly everything about those scenes is pitch-perfect and one can truly sense the characters' instant fondness for each other. Yet, when she learns a bit too much about the boy's father, we immediately sense that the once possible mother/son relationship will never be and the effect is heartbreaking.

Carmen Maura ("Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," "The Law of Desire") is quite good as the boy's recently widowed grandmother who misses her late husband and is too controlling of her young charge. Mex Urtizbeara (making his feature debut) is decent as the adult neighbor who discusses problems about the fairer sex with the boy, while Agresti is believable as the mostly absent but stern father. It's also heartbreaking to see the boy light up when his dad shows up, only to have him treat him like dirt.

But the film really belongs to Noya and he's what makes it worthwhile despite the various problems and deficiencies. In fact, I can't imagine any other child actor who could have pulled off the part and made him nerdy, goofy and precocious, as well as charming and lovable.

I just wish the overall film induced the same response from me. While it has its charms and winning moments, in the end, it feels like an incomplete chapter where the wheels just spin 'round and 'round, but it and thus we never get anywhere. "Valentin" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed April 30, 2004 / Posted May 21, 2004

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