Dir: Antonio Mercero. 100 mins. Spain (2003).

4th Floor (Planta Cuarta) didn't create much of a buzz in Spain while it was in production, nor even after winning a special mention for its young cast at the Spanish Film Festival of Malaga last May. So it was all the more surprising when Antonio Mercero won best director for it at the recent Montreal Film Festival. The movie also took home the Air Canada public prize in Montreal, and a public prize at Spain's Mostra de Valencia. Audience awards are well deserved for this feelgood picture aimed at a mainstream, all-age public - regardless of language and culture, as the Montreal prizes attest. Sales outfit Grupo PI recently picked up international rights from producer BocaBoca and will show the film at the upcoming Spanish Film Screenings of Lanzarote (Nov 27-29), where its festival wins and strong local box office could fuel buyer interest.

Buena Vista International has seen ticket sales increase on a weekly basis in Spain thanks to word-of-mouth, pushing the film from seventh ranking in its opening weekend to a steady third in the following two weekends. At this rate, odds look good that 4th Floor will wind up among the top local grossers of the year. Following the example set by charismatic young star Juan Jose Ballesta's previous film, child abuse drama Pellet (El Bola), 4th Floor should enjoy a healthy shelf life on TV and video as well.

Infusing an already heart-tugging tale with extra gravitas, the script for 4th Floor is based on writer Albert Espinosa's play about his own experiences as a teenager in a hospital cancer ward. Izan (Priego) is best friend to wise-cracker Miguel Angel (Ballesta), the leader of a group of wheelchair-bound cancer patients struggling to maintain their humour - and a sense of everyday teenage life - despite the circumstances. When new guy Jorge (Zafra) checks in for bone marrow tests, the boys draw him into the protective fold of their gang.

Ballesta dominates the screen with his boundless charisma and youthful good looks. He is surrounded by a well-cast group of largely unknown actors. Gorka Moreno does a particularly good job manoeuvring scenes of puppy love when his character Dani falls in love with an anorexia patient on another floor of the hospital. The adult cast, including a cameo by the director, is also purposefully free of many recognisable faces, lending a greater sense of realism - at least for local audiences.

The material lends itself to melodrama, as does Mercero's style, shaped by a long career in television series. He leads audiences from laughter to tears by flipping between comedy and tragedy, favouring tight shots in the mostly interior settings and close-ups on emoting actors. He also shows a preference for neat resolutions, providing a light and upbeat ending despite many of the characters' still uncertain futures. This may all be too much for more cynical audiences, but it works as straight entertainment.

Prod co: BocaBoca Producciones
Prod: Cesar Benitez
Intl sales: Grupo PI
Scr: Alberto Espinosa and Antonio Mercero with the special collaboration of Ignacion del Moral, based on the theatre work Los Pelones by Albert Espinosa
Ed: Jose Maria Biurrun
DoP: Raul Perez Cubero
Music: Manuel Villalta
Main cast: Juan Jose Ballesta, Luis Angel Priego, Gorka Moreno, Alejandro Zafra, Marco Martinez, Marcos Cedillo, Maite Jauregui