Friday, October 05, 2012
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Writers: Alfonso Cuaron, Carlos Cuaron
Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Editors: Alfonso Cuaron, Alex Rodriguez
Cast: Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, Maribel Verdu, Daniel Giminez Cacho, Andres Almeida, Juan Carlos Remolina
Y Tu Mama Tambien makes its intentions evident from its first shot, a bedroom glimpsed through a doorway. On the wall is a Spanish language poster for Harold and Maude. On the bed are two nude teens, writhing and gasping in desperate jackrabbit sex. Their bodies are not perfect. They look like ordinary people. The girl, we find out, will be traveling to Europe soon. The boy is worried that she won't be faithful and she, in turn, is worried that he won't be. They make silly playful promises to one another. It neatly captures the film's charming balance of sexual charge, innocence, danger, and observational precision, and then swiftly begins to introduce more characters and sketch out the remarkable narrative engine that will drive this.
Before long we encounter the picture's one conceit, a calibrating perspective that regularly intrudes on the action, when all sound drops out for two or three seconds, and then a voiceover narration commands our attention briefly. This narrator is unnamed (Daniel Giminez Cacho, who is even uncredited in the film!). He is evidently not involved in the story but knows all the details—or at least has a version. He tells us things we need to know about the characters. He tells us trivial details about incidental matters such as the fate of a marauding band of pigs that is encountered. The effect is to give the picture the quality of a formal short story, a literary work, evoking a powerful mood. Even the fates of the pigs are poignant coming from this narrator. That sense is confirmed by the powerful ending, a memorably great last scene, last shot, last line, last moment—finished at its apex. Y Tu Mama Tambien often feels random and scattershot, a road movie times impromptu documentary times Godard madcap, handheld cameras and weird frames and action that often feels improvised. But in the end it becomes obvious how careful it has been every step of the way.
What impresses me perhaps most is the fierce urgency of it. It occupies carefully defined fever points of three intersecting lives in transition, and something in it has the certain feeling of eternity almost glimpsed. It is terribly poignant but high-spirited about the way it gets there, always a cracking good time. The three principals represent an intriguing range of Latin American life that feels as deliberate as anything else here (and most of this feels quite deliberate in the end): the two Mexican teens of 17 or 18, Tenoch (Diego Luna) from privileged circumstance and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) lower middle class. Julio's mother, the narrator tells us, is "a secretary in a corporation." Last there is Luisa (Maribel Verdu), a woman in her late 20s from Spain who is married to a Mexican man, Tenoch's cousin.
On one level it's a crazy story of high summer, those great lazy days when "the beach" is the place to go when you can get away, when people are away doing things, on vacations or travel for business, and things happen to the people they love without their even suspecting. Tenoch and Julio meet Luisa at a wedding and flirt with her. They find out she is married to Tenoch's cousin. She asks them about ocean beaches and they steer her away from the ones she has heard of, instead making one up, called Heaven's Mouth, which they claim is private and secluded and beautiful—none of the tourists know about it. They offer to show it to her. A day or two later, on an impulse, she decides to take them up on their offer. At that point, the picture opens up as a road movie about their adventures.
The chemistry between all three of them is electric as they confide to one another in their conversations in the car, always returning to the topic of sex one way or another. The energy between the boys in particular is charming and infectious. They are spectacularly dumb, as most teens are, buoyed again and again by their absurd confidence in the face of all things. They play farting games with one another in the car. They talk big about a manifesto they have written for themselves and the two other boys they hang out with. "Pop beats poetry," goes one of the formal principles. The extravagant bohemian passion reminded me of a novel by I read recently by Roberto Bolano, The Savage Detectives, in which the idea is more like "poetry beats pop." I love that adolescent sense that "pop" and "poetry" are important.
The three central performances are great, each in its way, but Bernal in particular, for me, has a way of reaching through the screen, the crazy ways his face goes in his hilarious high moments, when he has just caught on to a joke. In this role he has the energy of a young Iggy Pop, all nerve, muscle, and attitude, on a serious quest for laughs and a good time.
Maribel Verdu has the toughest, most complex role to play here, and she is up to it, playing it open-faced and vulnerable with a convincing gritty core. When the boys ask her what she does, guessing philosopher and writer, she shyly tells them she is a dental technician, explaining the circumstances of how she became what Tenoch blurts out is the person who sucks the drool out of patients' mouths. The narrator fills out more details of her hard life: orphaned at 10, sent to live with a great-aunt, Luisa's last living relative, who becomes sick when Luisa is 15. Luisa cares for her for the last five years of her life. Now Luisa appears headed for divorce, as it comes out, and she has other secrets as well.
Y Tu Mama Tambien starts almost too loose and unfocused, a blur of activity and characters it is hard to get a good bead on. But when it rounds into form, as the road trip begins, the narrative and the style of it each start to take on a life of its own, like a live wire from a downed tower flopping and twitching and sparking across the roadway. The deeper it goes, the deeper it goes, and ultimately it goes very deep (and so economically: "Do you ever wish you could live forever?" Luisa asks Tenoch and Julio as they watch a spectacular sunset on the beach). The resolution hits me as a stunning knockout punch, followed immediately by a haunting final shot built entirely out of the materials that one's own imagination has just created, facilitated by this beautiful film and its mysterious narrator.