Foreign Film Friday: Y Tu Mamá También is the perfect road movie to end your summer with
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When you think of the perfect teen summer film, Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 coming-of-age drama Y Tu Mamá También might not be the first title that comes to mind.
Set during a late 90s summer in Mexico, it follows best friends Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) as they embark on a cross-country journey with a woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú). Along the way, they discover several painful truths about each other, and themselves. Meanwhile in the background, an omniscient narrator sheds light on truths left unsaid.
With its focus on youth, sex and self-discovery, Y Tu Mamá También has all the makings of a classic summer road movie. Julio and Tenoch certainly fit the bill, as does Luisa. They're a pair of horny teenage boys who like to fart, masturbate and smoke weed; she's an alluring older woman with a secret. It screams quintessential Americana, but it couldn’t be further from it. The road movie element was in fact Cuarón’s way of getting to explore the geographical, cultural and political landscapes of his native Mexico.
The most striking thing that differentiates the film from its Hollywood counterparts is its documentary-realistic style of filmmaking. Any music is completely diegetic; the camerawork is wandering and unostentatious; the script was minimal. Improvised dialogue was reportedly encouraged during filming, while according to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki they shot the film using "90% natural light”. Bernal and Luna even shot a scene each. On top of giving the film its own unique feel, all this helps to create the free-spirited atmosphere Tenoch and Julio crave so much.
But before we can get too lost in the magic, the narration (provided by Daniel Giménez Cacho) brings us back to reality. Cacho's voice is devoid of emotion, yet it adds significant depth. We learn about how Julio, who comes from a working-class household, lights matches to hide the smell whenever he uses Tenoch’s bathroom. Meanwhile Tenoch, who comes from an upper-class family in politics, won’t even use his hand to lift the toilet seat at Julio’s. Neither of them knows this about the other.
It’s a neutral yet crushing observation, the kind of which crops up again and again. Snippets of the past are briefly revealed (such as a deadly road accident that occurred ten years earlier) as well as fates that are yet to arrive. We're told that the fisherman who escorts our leads across the beaches will lose his livelihood to gentrification. We learn that a doll given to Luisa belonging to a girl who shared her name died trying to cross the border. During a drive through rural deserts they pass a group of citizens being interrogated by armed police. No one seems to notice except the camera. Even if the characters aren’t talking about it, the political and economic realities of post-90s Mexico are the steady pulse of the film.
The relationship between Julio and Tenoch is treated with as much dignity. Their bond clearly goes deeper than friendship. They share everything with each other, from drugs to sexual partners. The narrator even describes as an “inseparable entity”. Yet there remains a competitive, repressed edge between them, one which Luisa can see straight through - and help them to transcend. Cuarón’s long takes are a directorial trademark, but they also help to downplay moments that would have the censors reeling. The film trusts its audience to know what they’re seeing is reality, rather than scandal.
Most teen romances work as a sun-kissed escapist fantasy, but tend not to offer much more. Y Tu Mamá También isn't one of them. The film is unapologetic in its frank depiction of sex, but it's also very real. It understands teenage boys in a way that few other films do, and it does so without reducing Luisa to another of their conquests. During one of their drives, for instance, she recalls the story of her first lover to the boys. They of course respond with crude sexual humour. Then Luisa reveals the boy died. "He was 17." Silence. It's a harsh truth that part of growing up is coming to terms with the terrifying fragility of life. Julio and Tenoch can try to ignore it, but the rest of the film won't.