TLA/Color/2.35/Doalby Digital/100 Mins./Not Rated

Cast: José Luis Garcia-Pérez, David Castillo, Elvira Lindo, Empar Ferrer, Arno Chevrier, Mario Arias, Josele Roman, Diana Cerezo.
Credits: Directed by Luis Miguel Albaladejo. Written by Albaladejo, Salvador Garcia Ruiz. Produced by Juan Alexander. Executive producers: Sergio Castellote, José Luis Garcia Arrojo. Director of photography: Alfonso Sanz. Production designer: José Antonio Carmona. Edited by Pablo Blanco. Music by Lucio Godoy. Costume designer: Silvia Garcia Bravo. A Star Line production, in association with TVE, Canal Plus and TeleMadrid. In Spanish and French with English subtitles.

Internationally, Spain would seem to be the country that is currently turning out the most interesting films. Besides the preeminence of Pedro Almodóvar, a number of other auteurs, like Eloy de la Iglesia with Bulgarian Lovers and Luis Miguel Albaladejo with Bear Cub, have stepped to the fore with bracingly smart, funny and moving works. The fact that all three of these directors are gay should not go unmarked.

Nine-year-old Bernardo (David Castillo) enters the life of his gay uncle, Pedro (José Luis Garcia-Pérez), when his hippie, druggy mother Violeta (Elvira Lindo) goes off to India. Pedro’s busy gay life as a dentist and very socially and sexually active schedule as a “bear” (i.e., older, hairy gay man) is definitely disrupted by this “cub’s” intrusion, but, eventually, he and his withdrawn nephew come to forge a deep bond that must contend with the machinations of Bernardo’s meddlesome grandmother (Empar Ferrer), bent on gaining custody of him.

At the screening I attended, the film opened with a pretty hard-core scene of two “bears” having avid, graphic sex, a scene that will be cut for American theatrical release. This is rather a shame for, although it may gain this very worthy, unrated film a wider audience, this scene was not only muy sexy but featured sensuality among less-than-“perfect” physical types, who are ordinarily never celebrated in this way. (It also had a funny punch line, when Pedro walks in on the couple, and you realize he was actually part of a very impromptu, anonymous three-way before tossing them back out onto the street.)

Albaladejo fully captures the picaresque, joyously free gay life centered in Madrid’s La Chueca quarter, and the deep price libertine Pedro pays when he must give it up for his nephew’s sake. Happily, an amusingly combative best friend throws Pedro a fabulous surprise party and then offers to baby-sit, giving him a free night out. The solitary mystery and pure thrill of the sexual chase is vividly apparent in Pedro’s gleaming eyes as he sets out on his amatory quest, and any gay male audience member is sure to feel a piercing charge of recognition at the moment.

The film is, of course, not all sex, and, indeed, brims with observant intelligence. There’s wit in the way everyone, from Violeta to all of Pedro’s friends seem assured of young Bernardo’s future as a homosexual. At one point, Pedro chides a friend for speaking too sexually to Bernardo, and this communicative calibration rings true, as well as instructively.

Castillo gives one of the best child performances in memory, smart, refreshingly unprecocious and completely real; when, as he is being taken away from Pedro and finally tells him “I love you,” I defy anyone’s eyes not to water. (It’s all the more effective as the tears are honestly earned, through artistry and the deepest kind of empathy.) Garcia-Pérez, deeply attractive largely because of that most subtle of allurements, intelligence, makes Pedro an intriguingly complex character, whose personal issues (fear of intimacy, health, love of personal freedom) are simply what all humanity shares. Albaladejo is the most generous of filmmakers: There are no easy villains or heroes here, and the rest of his cast—Pedro’s charmingly fast-talking, likeably raffish posse (who aptly tell Bernardo, “You won’t remember our names, because we all look alike”) and especially Ferrer as acquisitive, hard-drinking Grandma—couldn’t be bettered. It’s a real privilege to spend time in such company.