Morbidly Beautiful

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“Manfish” is hilarious and heartfelt; quite a remarkable film anchored by a smart script, great creature design, and stellar performances.

A movie called Manfish inspires certain understandable expectations. A person in a rubbery mask, a human-fish hybrid rampaging through the town, terrorizing the unsuspecting citizenry. These are reasonable plot assumptions. However, I implore you: to suspend your preconceived notions going into Marc Coleman’s strange, lovely movie.

The titular manfish isn’t the hero of the movie. Manfish is Terry’s story — sweet, simple, and passive.

Not fantastically bright, he spends his days collecting seashells for his homemade jewelry boxes and being abused by his horrible girlfriend, Tracy (Emma Stannard). Tracy openly cheats on Terry with his equally awful brother, Nigel (Liam Noble), the local drug dealer. Tracy wants Terry to join the family business, but his gentle nature isn’t particularly intuned to drug peddling.

Terry plans a low-key but sweet celebration for his and Tracy’s anniversary, but she blows him off to sleep with his brother. Feeling hopeless and alone, Terry heads to the beach, intending to walk into the ocean.

Before he reaches the water, he stumbles across a creature wrapped in a black tarp. Tracy, who has followed Terry to the beach, demands he open the tarp, and when they discover a human-fish hybrid within, she decides they’re going to keep it and sell it.

Surely there is money in the manfish business, and Tracy’s not about to miss out.

The manfish can’t communicate with Tracy or Terry, but he can scarf down breakfast cereal, and even better, he can make beautiful jewelry boxes.

Tracy isn’t fond of the manfish, but she is very pleased with the money his custom jewelry boxes bring in.

The manfish and Terry craft and bond while Tracy and Nigel plan how best to profit off of the strange newcomer. The obvious answer? Sell him to rich weirdos eager to try some one-of-a-kind seafood.

Without ruining the joy of discovery, the plot progresses exactly as you realize it must.

At a certain point, all of the moving parts click into place, and the viewer understands what’s happening and where it’s going. Yet, something is jarring about watching it occur.

I know this is vague; I also know that when you see it, you’ll understand. And you should see it because Manfish defies the limitations of its somewhat goofy name.

Against every reasonable odd, Manfish manages to balance supremely silly visuals and dialogue with earnestness and ruminations on loneliness and alienation.

Credit writer-director Coleman who crafted a careful script that allows his hero to be real and sympathetic in the same scene where a giant man-fish hybrid wears a velour tracksuit that says “slut” on the butt.

It’s no easy feat to juggle these tones, but Coleman does it deftly.

The movie could play the manfish and Terry’s relationship as a joke, but it doesn’t. The movie doesn’t go for easy, cruel laughs; its humor is much weirder and more rewarding.

The creature design provides some heavy lifting.

The manfish is somehow both repulsive and adorable at the same time. It’s not exactly realistic, but by the second minute of screen time, you won’t care. The manfish’s huge, sad eyes are deeply expressive.

Beneath the creature suit, Matty Noble imbues the manfish’s movements with the uncertainty of — forgive the obvious aphorism — a fish out of water.

Despite the manfish’s vaguely grotesque facial features, he feels full and realized-a character with no spoken dialogue who makes himself and his emotions known through careful movements and reactions.

The lion’s share of the emotion falls on Dean Kilbey’s incredibly capable shoulders.

Terry is a sweet soul thrown into a deeply improbable situation who’s doing his best to simply survive. When he is surprised by purpose and hope, he holds fast to it without magically transforming into a new person.

Kilbey creates an inner life for Terry, borne of suffering and natural, innate kindness.

It’s impossible to watch him and not feel your heart break over and over for Terry, a man whose life has been studiously cruel.

The movie is a tidy 80 minutes, not one second of it wasted.

Manfish chugs along at a clipped, steady pace.

Calling this horror feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of the film. If anything, it is beholden to the stories of salty sea dogs, tales of sirens and mermaids calling sailors to dash themselves on the rocks.

Manfish looks the silliness of its name and premise in the eye and fails to flinch. It’s a bold achievement, a salt-drenched ode to finding happiness wherever and whenever possible.

Be prepared; you won’t be more moved by a sea creature this year.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4.5

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