Grade: B

The story of an unprepared aunt or uncle who must take on the responsibility of raising the child of a sibling–almost always with resistance from some other family member–has become a story so frequently told that it reeks of mothballs. One need only recall how embarrassingly sappy Garry Marshall’s recent take on it, “Raising Helen,” was. But writer-director Luis Miguel Albaladejo makes a return visit to this overly familiar territory a surprisingly enjoyable trip. “Bear Cub” gives the narrative a gay twist–in this case Uncle Pedro (Jose Luis Garcia Perez) is not only homosexual but HIV-positive–but that’s not what makes the picture a pleasant surprise. Rather it’s the chemistry between the burly Perez (the title refers to a community of big, hirsute gay men who reject the usual stereotypes) and little David Castillo, who’s Pedro’s nine-year old nephew Bernardo. Perez is gruffly likable and understated, but it’s Castillo, the rare youngster who can play precocious without become irritating in the process, who really makes the film work. This is one cub who proves more than worthy of the big leagues.

As the picture opens, Pedro is preparing to take in Bernardo for a few weeks while his free-spirited sister Violeta (Elvira Lindo), an aging hippie type, goes off on a trip to India with her latest boyfriend. He tells his friends that he’ll be pretty much out of circulation for a while, although the kid, brought up in obviously liberal circumstances, proves adaptable and surprisingly self-sufficient, and a neighbor’s daughter (Josele Roman) is an adept sitter during the hours Pedro spends at his dental practice. But a short stay turns into something far different when Violeta is arrested on drug charges and jailed for what might be a very long time. Pedro takes on the responsibility of caring for the boy permanently and things go fairly well, with Bernardo easily taking to his uncle’s friends and lovers (and they to him, in a purely avuncular sense of course). But the boy’s paternal grandmother Teresa (Empar Ferrer) intrudes; Violeta had excluded her from Bernardo’s life ever since the death of her husband, but now she wants to take over the boy’s upbringing, and she goes to considerable lengths to do so–even hiring investigators to look into Pedro’s life, including his medical history. One might expect that at this point “Bear Cub” will take a turn to the bathetic, portraying Pedro and Bernardo as devastated and Teresa as a mean-spirited villainess. But though the picture doesn’t scrimp on the sentiment, it proves more subtle than that; the three characters are drawn with considerable nuance, and though there’s no doubt where the makers’ sympathies lie, they don’t make the mistake of turning anyone into a simple hero or painting anyone in unvaryingly dark tones. There’s a general air of forgiveness and tolerance of the failings of others that’s refreshing–and nicely low-keyed.

“Bear Cub” isn’t a huge crowd-pleaser, but by maintaining a sense of emotional decorum in what could have easily have become a heart-on-sleeve embarrassment (see “Raising Helen” again), it proves a pleasurable amble down a well-worn cinematic street.