Claudia Sainte-Luce's semi-autobiographical indie has a knack for subverting stereotypes without making a big deal about it. Like the one that depicts HIV as the sole affliction of gay men, various needle-type junkies, and hard-living urbanites, or the other that suggests there's no stable middle class in cartel-dominated, border-wild Mexico.
The diagnosed-positive individual here is Martha (Lisa Owen), a suburban single mother of four, and her progressing disease is very much a family affair. During one of her regular, intermittent hospital stays, she meets Claudia (Ximena Ayala, whose reserved performance is enchanting), a clever but directionless twentysomething of the combat-boot-wearing variety. The bond between the women develops when Claudia moves into Martha's home as a glorified nanny-cum-surrogate mother to her children, a heartbreaking foreshadowing of a role made increasingly clear as the matriarch's health continues to deteriorate.
But Sainte-Luce primes the story with enough comedy to avoid total doom and gloom. The scene in which the prepubescent Mariana (Andrea Baeza) gets drunk for the first time in a Wal-Mart–like superstore, as is young Armando's (Alejandro Ramírez-Muñoz) habit of taking his pet fish out for walks. Make no mistake, The Amazing Catfish is a tear-jerker, but ultimately it's more about finding a family than losing one.