Judge Brett Cullum would like to offer himself up for adoption by bears that like to party.
Parenthood is about to get a little hairier.
Bears have gotten very little attention in gay cinema. It seems most gay movies feature pretty, well-shaven gym bunnies, or campy drag queens. Few have spotlighted the natural hirsute men who call themselves "bears." If you're not quite sure what a bear is (and I would be shocked if you're reading this review without any knowledge of them), let me try and find an adequate definition. In essence, a "bear" is a hairy homosexual man (often bearded) who prefers to be natural rather than preened to within an inch of his life. (Think "straight guy before those Queer Eye guys make him look prissy and overly groomed.") Some people mistakenly assume they are always heavy men, but I've known quite a few self-proclaimed "muscle bears" in addition to the cuddly kind. It's a counterculture movement by some gay men to remain masculine and natural, and not play into the idea that all gay men should be blonde, under 30, well-shaved everywhere, and muscular, with low body fat.
Bear Cub is a movie that shows natural bearded men in all their glory, but it is also a moving portrait of a man who has to take care of a child in need. So rather than being a fetish film about men who don't shave, it's a quite satisfying drama that is pretty much everything Uptown Girls (that really bad Dakota Fanning/Brittany Murphy vehicle) aspired to be but never was. TLA Releasing offers us a great disc to support one of the most interesting gay movies to come along in quite some time. Woof!
Facts of the Case
Pedro is a sexually active single gay man living it up in downtown Madrid. He's a dentist by day, but at night he's a man-eating bear running with a pack of hairy gay guys who like to party. One day, his sister Violet shows up and leaves his nine year old nephew Bernardo in his charge while she goes to India for two weeks. But things don't go quite as planned during Bernardo's short visit with his Uncle Pedro. Violet and her hippie boyfriend end up being arrested for drug trafficking; she will have to remain in an Indian jail for quite some time. At the same time, a nervous grandmother decides Pedro may not be the best caretaker for her grandson, starts legal action to get him out of Pedro's apartment. Bernardo bonds with Pedro, and decides he wants to stay with his hairy uncle no matter what. Will Pedro be able to reconcile his new life with his young charge and his supercharged sex-life? Or will his lifestyle prove to be his undoing in the courts? Will Bernardo have a say in all this?
Bear Cub stars a famous Spanish stage actor (who recently made the jump to film), Jose Luis Garcia Perez, as Pedro. He is joined by Spanish TV's child star David Castillo, as the cherubic Bernardo. They have undeniable chemistry, and deliver natural, unaffected performances free of the melodrama the plot could have held. The success of Bear Cub relies on these two actors, who work to make the movie charming and moving without ever resorting to being cute or maudlin. We believe every moment between them, which is why Bear Cub is such a moving journey. Pedro is changed by having to take care of Bernardo, and he begins to realize how important family and love really are. It's in showing this kind of love is that Bear Cub feels the most revolutionary. It's a movie where sexuality takes a backseat to love for a child who needs someone. In a memorable scene, one of Pedro's bear friends asks him if he thinks Bernardo is gay. Pedro quickly says that a nine-year-old child has no sexual identity, and that is not an appropriate question. Kudos to the film's screenwriters for unflinchingly showing that a sexual man can draw the line appropriately when it comes to a child. And Bernardo is a wonderful child who knows when he is loved and respected. There is one poignant scene where he has to square off with his grandmother, admitting he knows more than she suspects, and reveals he does not care about sexuality as long as he is loved.
Another aspect in which Bear Cub triumphs is Pedro's unapologetic sexuality. He is completely frank about his love of men, and even seeks out casual encounters just like a normal guy. There is never an air of perversity or exploitation in his conquests. They are simply what sex is in real life—matter-of-fact, and part of a normal man's routine. The sex is not shot to look pretty; it's all very honest and straightforward.
If you saw the theatrical release of Bear Cub in the United States, you may have missed a couple of sex scenes. Apparently the graphic opening scene, with two hairy men having sex, was too much for the MPAA, so the distributor had to trim it. Also excised from the movie was a frank scene in a steam room, where Pedro has casual sex with two men while declining the advances of another man who wants to go home with him. The DVD is being released in two versions here in the U.S.: the MPAA-rated U.S. theatrical cut, and an unrated director's cut with sex scenes intact. The editing is definitely not an issue with respect to compromising the movie's themes or message; but without the sex you lose some of the honesty about Pedro's lifestyle. The problem for the censors was that the scenes in question showed full frontal male nudity and some rather graphic shots of sexual acts. Oh no! They show male members! It's the unforgivable sin in American movies. It seems most rental outlets (including the online chains) are carrying the rated version, so finding the unrated one may be a challenge without some effort (or a purchase).
What I love about Bear Cub is how every character is painted true to life, and nobody in the film is allowed to fall into stereotype or archetype. Expecting the grandmother to be all righteous and evil? She's not. Everyone in the film has clear motives, and Bernardo's progressive mother is treated with respect and dignity even after she is incarcerated in a foreign country. All of these people are doing the best they can, and what they think is right. The film does not pass judgment on any of its characters, no matter what their lifestyle or beliefs dictate. Bear Cub is a three-dimensional film in emotional terms. It looks at every situation from all angles, and amazingly offers 360 degree views of all parties involved.
TLA Releasing has provided Bear Cub with a pretty nice package for a small indie film from Spain. I've often teased that the company should be called "T&A for gays," since most of their titles are exploitation flicks starring air-brushed gym boys cruising each other. Here they prove their versatility—or at least offer a film that's not afraid to show a different view of some not so traditional "T&A." The transfer looks fine, without many artifacts; but the dark scenes seem murky, and there is plenty of grain on hand. The audio comes in surround or basic stereo mixes. Both are fine, but this is a quiet dialogue-driven film that offers few effects to rattle more than three of your speakers at any given moment. Extras are decent, with two deleted scenes that easily show why they were deleted—they detract from the plot. A commentary track offers a discussion with lead actor Jose Luis Garcia Perez and a French representative from the film's producing company and foreign distributor, Canal Plus. They both speak broken English, and offer a charming track that is hardly informative. Also included are some trailers and a nice photo gallery. A director's statement is given as a text feature, and explains succinctly how he was striving to make a film beyond the conventions of popular gay cinema.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is a small independent film from Spain that never elevates the story in any way other than an honest one. It's a quiet film that never spells out its emotions in an easy way. It also looks like an independent feature. The production values are not glossy or sensational, they're just real. Some people are going to be turned off by that as much as some people will be turned off by the fact that the lead sports some "man boobs" instead of a gym body. Bear Cub may be too much of a verité experience for some people.
Gay films often only reach a gay audience, and that's a shame, because Bear Cub would make a great impact on anyone. Unfortunately, because it is so unapologetically sexual, only the rated version would lend itself to viewing by straight audiences. Even then, I doubt most heterosexuals would want to sit through an entire movie about hairy men looking for love and finding it in family. It's a shame the people who could benefit the most from a message about how caring transcends sexual preference will be repelled by some bearded kisses, but there you are.
It's also a shame foreign films will never be as popular as films made in America. Even when something is in English, many people won't watch it if it's available as a U.S. product. Look no further than the British Queer as Folk, which is far more resonant than its more popular American copy, for a prime example. Bear Cub is going to have a hard time finding an audience, even among gay viewers, since it is subtitled and not available in an English dub. Sad, but true. Many people will not watch this ground-breaking and empowering film because it's in Spanish. It's a small-budget foreign film that will never get mass acceptance even among its target audience.
Bear Cub is an honest, moving portrait of a real gay man who has to come to terms with himself when he finds a child who needs him. It's a great little movie that never gives itself over to style or sensation, and instead offers a true-to-life story told in a brave, unflinching tone. Watch it for the excellent performances and the honest look at a lifestyle. Don't expect glitz or glamour. No drag queens, no gym bodies, no fabulous interior designs. Bear Cub is about a man who just happens to be gay. And you know, I wish more movies and television shows would realize that's just fine.
Bear Cub is guilty of being a very real look at hairy people. It's emotionally true and powerful in its simple message that family is not always what you expect. It's free to go, because honestly I don't want a bunch of hairy men chasing me down a dark alley…at least not in anger. It's a movie that makes you wish your parents were as cool and fun as Pedro. Goldilocks had the wrong idea—obviously, it's more fun to live with the bears.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
• Commentary by Actor Jose Luis Garcia Perez
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