In the year that Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind, 8-year-old Valentín takes one small step for literature.
Cross-eyed, bespectacled, and wise way beyond his years (or so he thinks), Valentín lives in a world of his own design. Part of this world is hope -- he wants to be an astronaut, which isn't too likely for a lad in small-town Argentina -- and part of it simply makes the best of some dire circumstances. But by the time his story arrives at its gently happy ending, he realizes that his destiny lies in becoming a writer -- and that his bittersweet life so far has already given him at least one story to tell.
Valentín lives with his 60-ish widowed Grandma (Spanish actress Carmen Maura) and longs to see his philandering absent mother, who wants nothing to do with him. At least, that's what his father says when he bothers to come home for a visit from his lucrative big-city job. Valentín befriends the melancholy pianist next door and begins taking lessons. He also grows fond of his dad's new girlfriend, Leticia, who's blonde, 22, and as thoughtful and sensitive as his father is selfish and cruel.
But spending time with these adults wakes Valentín up to a world he didn't see coming. "Grown-ups seem incapable of telling the truth," he observes after nearly an hour of narrating, with sage confidence, the goings-on around him. "The world could be a different place. Everything I know could be wrong."
Written and directed by Alejandro Agresti, Valentín is always pleasant and occasionally tender, although it never rises too much beyond the sweetly sentimental and routine. Young Rodrigo Nova isn't an especially captivating child, and in fact, most of his appeal in Valentín comes from his ordinariness. Maura, who has started to age handsomely, is probably the heart of the movie, and she makes Valentín's lonely Grandma at once invigorating and terribly sad.
Like the recent Italian drama I'm Not Scared, Valentín is about a child's awakening to the world of adult complexities. But Agresti achieves his effect somewhat cheaply, with the copious voiceover narration of his young protagonist. When you have a child who can observe "there are people who seem to live and not make any use of life," you really don't have to show very much, so his movie is a fleet 89 minutes. Agresti does seem to be somewhat interested in anti-Semitism: Valentín's mother was Jewish, and when Letitia learns how the boy's father degraded her for it, she rethinks their relationship. It's one of a few small touches that give Valentín a slightly more satisfying sense of time, place and culture. In Spanish, with subtitles.