The fun thing about cinema is its ability to explore aspects of humanity without necessarily making judgements on it. This, of course, can back-fire if the audience doesn’t receive the film, or moments within it, as intended (see: Shannon Lee’s response to Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood). There’s a fine line between something being used to generate laughs and something examining why we laugh. In the case of OUATH, there should be no reason for laughing at the presentation of Bruce Lee which plays into stereotypes versus the truth of the man, yet people did and writer/director Quentin Tarantino holds his ground about the presentation even now. I bring this up because writer/director/actor Michael Erger walks a similar razor’s edge with his dark comedy Pescador, which follows a group of rather terrible people as they navigate a series of rather perilous interpersonal landmines. As it is riddled with outrageous dialogue to highlight how egregious his characters are, it can be difficult to find your way into the technically impressive film.
Biochemist professor Sara (Aimee Guichard) and her boyfriend Billy (Erger) have invited her graduate student Wren (Nikki Snipper) and her boyfriend Mark (Shawn Hawkins) over for dinner. Wren’s worried about whether or not she’ll be able to complete her work to graduate (in contrast to her fellow classmates) and her nerves are amplified by the fact that Mark’s just completed his defense and earned his Ph.D.. But Sara didn’t invite the two over to advise Wren through her stress and help her student get back on track; she did it to ask Mark if he’d agree to be a sperm donor. As the night goes on and the question’s answer remains unresolved, other darker answers begin to appear, sending the party toward an unexpected end.
When it comes to stories, depiction doesn’t necessarily equate to approval. If you’re online at all, then you’ve likely seen this come up recently with writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza which is being accused of racism and promoting a rather uncomfortable age gap between the lead characters. Considering the film is inspired by Anderson’s own experiences, he can’t be faulted on drawing from them, but he can be faulted for how he presents them. And people are. I mention this because there are moments within Pescador which made me wonder if Erger was trying to see how far he could push his audience to stop rooting for any of the characters. The central conceit of the film is fairly straight-forward: Sara is a divorcee who wants a child, can’t with her new boyfriend because his sperm are weak swimmers, and so she settles on the boyfriend of a student she knows closely due to her relationship with the student’s father. There’s drama to be mined here as the question of sperm donation, much like being a surrogate, is incredibly personal and fraught with booby traps all its own. Smartly, Erger’s script does explore how Wren feels about her boyfriend donating from a variety of perspectives (ethical, financial, interpersonal). Especially as the script opens up about Mark’s own personal failings and how he could use the funds Sara offers for the donation (more if impregnation is successful), Pescador becomes tense and gripping as we wonder which way the characters might go. However, with the exception of Wren, the script continually offers up reasons why none of these people should be procreating to begin with. It’s not just the casual racism or misogyny they all engage with, it’s that Sara is so driven to start a family and is so disillusioned by her divorce that there’s no ethical line she won’t cross. Similarly, and without getting into Mark’s specific problems, he’s introduced as an expert of a culture older than the Indigenous people of America yet speaks of them in stereotypical means. What kind of person studies a group of people he doesn’t seem to hold respect for? Again, depiction doesn’t equate to approval, but the continued depiction does place the whole affair in a perspective that’s difficult to stay locked into, especially when the real story within Pescador is revealed.
Let it be known that Erger is someone with mirth built within them. The word “pescador” is Portuguese for “fisherman/woman.” Taken literally, it refers to someone who fishes. That Erger’s Billy is grilling salmon for dinner and he and Sara share a story about how they caught the meal offers a direct connection between title and individual. It’s silly, cute, and about as direct a correlation between title and content as one can get. However, the real center of the film isn’t Billy, it’s Sara and her quest for sperm. She is the real pescador and the film is strongest when it remembers this. With the exception of scant scenes which offer some insight into her mental struggles of her failed marriage, new relationship, and desire to become a parent, there’re only a few moments which make the connection of Sara as the center. Perhaps it’s because the script rushes to set the initial request up within minutes of the film’s start so that it has to spent time creating dramatic tension from other areas that it loses its narrative thread a tad amid the colorful conversations. Without question, though, Guichard’s Sara is the core of the film. She’s its narrative catalyst, the character from whom all tensions emanate, and whose secrets give Pescador its weight as it slowly reveals itself as an exploration of what misogyny does to women. Guichard is the absolute star of the film, more than capable of carrying moments dramatic or silly, being the anchor that holds Pescador in place and the audience in rapt attention when she’s at work.
To their credit, Erger as director and cinematographer James Kwan (Hell’s Heart) set up scenes so that they not only look but feel natural, too. In one of the opening scenes, the camera is placed facing from inside the house toward the back so that we can see the two women inside while the men are outside by the grill. For framing purposes, a different director might’ve placed Sara and Wren on opposite sides of the table, communicating that they’re on different sides while also offering a clear shot of them both. Instead, Wren is at the head of the table with her back to us, sitting near Sara, which makes far more sense as two people who know each other and are comfortable with one another. Additionally, throughout the film, there’s a warmth, even in the darkness of their back patio, indicating a familiarity and comfort, rather than terror or fear. Everything within Pescador involves risk — of heart, soul, and desire — yet you’d never know it to look at it. Bolstered by David M. Saunder’s (Gun Shy) frequently jaunty music, Pescador carries a liveliness that battles against the tone/toner of the dialogue, which would rather see the film dive straight into the heart of darkness.
Technically, Pescador is incredibly impressive. The score, cinematography, and direction harmoniously come together to keep things light amid the rising darkness of the comedy. There’re a few too many moments where the comedy is lowbrow dialogue rather than situational and the sequencing of events is sometimes confusing (characters leave in a huff one moment, but are suddenly outside chatting calmly in another) in order to keep the narrative going. It also doesn’t dive as deeply into the meatier aspects of the subtext involving Sara in an effort to give the other three members of the cast their due. But, if you’re open to it, you will get a story about the desire to have a family all your own and on your own terms from a perspective that’s rarely examined. That alone is worth the price of the proverbial boat ride.
Available on Amazon Prime Video November 26th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Pescador website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.