There have been several pleasant surprises at TIFF this year, and The Amazing Catfish is amongst the top of the list. Claudia Sainte-Luce’s directorial debut is filled with joy and heart despite the sadness at the film’s core. It is the type of film that will have you reflecting on the family you were born into and the families you inadvertently adopted along the way.

The Amazing Catfish tells the story of Claudia (Ximena Ayala), a woman in her twenties with no real family or friends to speak of. When appendicitis lands her in the hospital, Claudia meets Martha (Lisa Owen) and her brood of children. With four children, from three different fathers, Martha’s clan is a loud, but loving bunch. As Martha’s condition worsen, she is HIV-positive, Claudia finds herself becoming more drawn to the family. She becomes both a voluntary care-giver and friend to Martha and her children. In the process she slowly discovers a sense of family that has eluded her all her life.

One thing I loved about the film was the way in which Sainte-Luce depicts Claudia’s overall feeling of emptiness at the beginning of the film. She never overstates the point, but does not shy away from it either. It serves as a nice juxtaposition to Martha’s family who is both full of love and great sadness. Sainte-Luce really taps into how Martha’s illness is impacting each of her four kids. She avoids bogging down the film with melodrama, but still manages to give the film a lingering emotional punch.

Like the main character in the film, Sainte-Luce brings us into Martha’s family as if they were our own. Although the siblings pull together in regards to taking care of their mother and household, Sainte-Luce points out that they are still youngsters who need their mother. In one charming scene during a trip to the beach, each child incurs an ailment that only their mother can seemingly fix. It is a touching moment, especially considering that Martha’s condition continues to deteriorate.

As far as directorial debuts go, Claudia Sainte-Luce displays both a strong visual eye and an understanding of the human condition. She knows how to get the proper emotional beats from her talented cast. Sainte-Luce’s restraint coupled with the film’s mixture of quirky humour and drama solidifies her as a director to watch. The Amazing Catfish is a touching and engaging film that is one of the year’s pleasant surprises.