Nature vs. Nurture

Family values flout convention in Bear Cub

Pedro (Jose Luis García Perez) is a burly, bearded gay dentist living in Madrid who hangs with a pack of ursine gay men who bear an uncanny likeness to himself.

Pedro wakes up on the morning of his beloved 9-year-old nephew's arrival from the countryside in a bed he's sharing with two other portly teddy bear men slumbering like hairy alpha-male hunters after a long day of deer killing. The men in Bear Cub have gruff, butch appearances like the manly men in John Waters' A Dirty Shame, and they clearly get around. But cut past that Über-butch party boy exterior, and you'll find hearts of spun sugar.

Pedro picks up the assortment of spent condoms littering the bedroom floor, tosses the porn and cocaine into a drawer, and otherwise tidies the place up like an undergrad expecting a visit from his parents. His hippie sister, Violeta (Elvira Lindo), arrives with her spaced-out boyfriend and her son, Bernardo (a charming David Castillo), promising to return in 14 days from a trip to India.

"I don't need to take a break from you," Bernardo pleads as Violeta waits at the airport to board her plane.

Bernardo is a precocious, intensely lovable kid trained by his mother for maximum self-sufficiency. His finesse with housework and laundry seems like a testament to his mother's desire to leave him alone for extended periods of time rather than a way of nurturing his independence. Everything about Violeta screams self-interest, as with her insistence — much to Pedro's displeasure — that Bernardo is gay. Violeta seems less concerned with Bernardo's actual sexual identity than with how much cooler a mother she would be with a gay kid.

Events are naturalistic in a pleasing way in Bear Cub, which resists jumping into the chasm of conventionality with its accurate, complicated read on real-life relationships. That includes the film's approach to gay sex, which the film refuses to pussyfoot around. A complicated sex life and a nurturing sensibility are not mutually exclusive, as a more moralistic American mentality might assume.

Bear Cub initially unfolds in a kicky, colorful big-city Spanish world with shades of Almodovar. But the hip Madrid milieu soon fades away as Bear Cub transforms into an unexpectedly sweet tale of the blossoming love between Bernardo, desperately homesick for his irresponsible mother, and Pedro, who would like to throttle the woman. Pedro may detest the flake his sister has become, but his love for Bernardo is pure. Pedro warns Bernardo on more than one occasion that crying is unmanly. He seems compelled to play the gruff manly man to counter his sister's permissive, irresponsible role in his nephew's life. But he still invites Bernardo to sleep in his bedroom when the boy is feeling particularly lonesome for his mother.

The scene is shot from a distance, focused on Pedro's hulking back, as one lanky arm reaches around him for comfort and the nephew and uncle snuggle closer as they sleep. It's one of many touching moments of the growing bond between Pedro and Bernardo, which is profoundly tested when Bernardo's scheming, meddlesome grandmother, Doña Teresa (Empar Ferrer), arrives on the scene.

Though the first half of the film takes the protectiveness Pedro feels for Bernardo in stride, the film's second half begins to feel a little too agenda laden and intent on proving that gay men can nurture and love children with the same self-sacrifice and commitment as breeders. Doña Teresa becomes the story's villain, trying to separate Bernardo from what she sees as Pedro's inappropriate gay lifestyle.

But despite Albaladejo trying to sneak a political message into a film blessedly free of Hollywood-style life lessons, Bear Cub is still a small gem. Warmhearted and charming, its message is simple but worth repeating: Loving parenting is determined not by gender or sexual orientation, but by something far deeper.