Cloying and Cute

You are ordered to find 'Valentin' adorable--or else!

A cute-as-a-button Argentinean boy longs for his mother, is confused by his childish father and tolerates a quirky grandmother guardian in Valentin, a sporadically touching but flailing film from writer-director Alejandro Agresti. The movie almost gets by on the strengths of young Rodrigo Noya as the title character, but is so cloying at times that it feels like purchasing a ticket is a mandate to find it adorable, or else.

Valentin, 8, lives with his grandmother in 1969 Argentina, and he's asking a lot of questions. Who and where is his absentee mom? Why does his mostly absentee dad go through girlfriend after girlfriend? What's so funny and impossible about wanting to be an astronaut? Intriguing questions, yet Agresti doesn't really provide substantial answers to any of them. The movie amounts to one vignette after another of Valentin acting like a grown man in a little boy's body, displaying more intelligence than the adult population surrounding him. Some of these vignettes are amusing, but most are annoying, and they fail to comprise a cohesive story.

The lack of a consistent story is further confused by Agresti's lack of style and complete inability to convey the time period in which his film takes place. The occasional woman shows up with a beehive hairdo; a television set looks like it could've been produced in the '60s, but there's little else to distinguish the picture as a period piece. Unless you've read the press notes--or this review--before taking it in, it's awfully hard to nail down the year in which the action takes place.

While Noya is charming and, yes, cute, his character is a bit of a nerd-boy stereotype. Decked out in black horn-rimmed glasses, he looks like little Ernie Douglas from My Three Sons. He shows flashes of intelligent brilliance in some of the interactions with adult counterparts, but his double-wide, gawky smile is used a few too many times for cheap sentimentality. Noya does possess that "wise beyond his years" trait that has made the likes of child-acting Americans Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning more frightening than endearing. To his credit, he seems to have his brightness a little more under control.

The best scenes in Valentin are between the boy and his dad's much younger girlfriend, Leticia (a radiant Julieta Cardinali). Noya and Cardinali have a genuine rapport, and one wishes that Agresti had allowed them more screen time together. Cardinali does a beautiful job of conveying confusion and hurt with her eyes as she hears the stories that will drive her away from Valentin's father. Regrettably, Agresti resorts to a rather unconvincing solution that keeps Leticia in Valentin's life. As the film's tagline proclaims, "Cupid just turned 8!" and that means implausible youngster-meddling in adult dating is on the way.

Agresti himself performs a few sturdy scenes as the boy's wayward dad, and Mex Urtizberea provides lukewarm comic relief as Valentin's piano teacher and tempestuous friend. As the beleaguered and heartsick grandmother, Carmen Maura (who starred in Pedro Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) does plenty with a miniscule part, a woman struggling to find purpose in life after the loss of her husband.

With its advertised but little-explored matchmaker's premise, Valentin wants to remind most of Amelie, but it has little of that film's inventiveness and humor. Like Amelie, it does have a winning performance at its center, but that which surrounds the title character is remarkably undistinguished and sometimes laborious to sit through. The movie could've benefited from a little more Leticia, more time for grandma and far less exploitation of Noya's "I'm so cute!" pearly whites.

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