Y Tu Mama También
From the opening shot it’s clear that the new Mexican film Y Tu Mamá También is not shy about dishing up flesh on flesh. There’s no easing into the action, no buildup, just two stark naked, enthusiastic 17-year-olds grinding away on top of the bedclothes, as if they were gunning for a land speed record. And it’s the tamest sex scene in the film. This, of course, is probably why you came to see the movie in the first place, under the noble guise of improving your Spanish or keeping up on the cultural doings of Our Neighbors to the South. But don’t let the lithe young bodies in flagrante delicto distract you utterly; Tu Mamá is a movie with sociological and political ambitions, too. It is also one of the liveliest, most interesting films to come along in the past year.
The story follows two inseparable best friends, Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal). They’ve just finished high school and their girlfriends have decamped to Europe together for the summer, leaving them to amuse themselves. This isn’t usually a problem for these two. Secure in their girlfriends’ fidelity, the boys look forward to a vacation of amorous and pharmacological adventures. But things get off to a slow start, and they’re reduced to intimate competitions at a deserted country club pool: swimming contests and another individual sport involving rhythmic strokes. Although they are not social equals–Julio is from a single-parent, lower middle-class family, and Tenoch’s wealthy father is a reigning crony in the ruling party–their friendship is giddy, mutually consuming, and unconsciously erotic. (However unabashed they are about sex, they would be horrified by the suggestion that it informs their feelings for each other).
At a wedding in Tenoch’s family–a modest affair involving a private bullfight, mariachi, and the President of the Republic’s bodyguard detail–the two friends flirt with a stunning Spanish woman (Maribel Verdú) who turns out to be the wife of Tenoch’s priggish cousin. Undaunted and enamored as always of their own charm, they invite her to accompany them on a trip to a secluded, secret beach unknown to tourists–which is unsurprising, since they’ve made it up on the spot. They christen the place Boca del Cielo–Heaven’s Mouth. Luisa, the Spaniard, turns them down, and they move on; it was a long shot, anyway. But events change Luisa’s mind, and the two friends find themselves in the unlikely position of escorting a beautiful older woman across Mexico to a place that doesn’t exist.
Y Tu Mamá También is a coming-of-age story, a buddy flick, a sex comedy, a road movie, and a snapshot of a nation. It’s no small feat that director Alfonso Cuarón is able to keep these needy genres in the same vehicle without them destroying each other. Tu Mamá presents a Mexico that most American viewers will find unfamiliar. Here we see the country through the eyes of the middle and upper classes, a viewpoint that bears striking similarities to that of its American counterpart, but one which also incorporates a sense of marginalization in an era of global, American-dominated culture. And it’s not just middle-class eyes through which we see, but the eyes of middle-class adolescent boys. Cuarón and his brother, co-screenwriter Carlos, clearly have a point to make about the current stage of Mexico’s development as a society–the coming-of-age, life-at-a-crossroads trope extends beyond the individual characters of Tenoch and Julio. The movie is pointedly set in the moment just before the PRI lost power, ending (in theory) the arrested adolescence of Mexico’s one-party democracy. Even the character’s names hint that we are meant to find significance on a national, cultural scale. Julio’s last name is Zapata. Tenoch was given his name at a time when an outward expression of nativist pride seemed politically expedient to his father. (“Tenoch” comes from the name of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, upon the ruins of which Mexico City now stands. “Tenoch,” was also the Aztec word for “ruling class.”)
The film is a major departure from Alfonso Cuarón’s previous effort, a Hollywood rendition of Great Expectations that could be described as painterly–visually rich, totally flat. But it’s impossible for all of Mexico, and all that Cuarón wants to say about it, to fit neatly into Tu Mamá. In its observations about globalization and wealth disparity, disappearing cottage industries, environmental degradation, and so forth, this is a movie that sometimes hammers too hard a single, unsurprising note. This thankless task often falls to a voiceover that intermittently breaks in as the rest of the soundtrack falls silent. An unidentified, selectively omniscient narrator connects the dots, fills in background details, and injects anecdotes of consequence that spiral out of, and often rather far afield from, the action on the screen. It’s a Godardian device, but I really don’t think it works here. Particularly because Caurón is skillful and daring in the way his images allude to the paradoxical realities of vastly different Mexicos. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera wanders from the main characters (whose talk never strays far from an extended session of Truth or Dare), to linger on the faces and gestures of peasants raising money for the beauty queen of their district, or a wizened old woman dancing to the radio in the kitchen of a roadside dive. The threesome breeze through roadblocks where other, darker-skinned Mexicans are searched; they pass shining police vehicles as shiny-uniformed police with shiny weapons round up migrant workers; they see handmade crosses mounted on the rocky road-banks, memorials to the catastrophes of overcrowded buses. Voiceover is an all-or-nothing tactic, and while this voice occasionally adds shading where a simple image could not, on the whole we’re better off without it. Too much of what the voiceover really has to say is already there, gliding past Lubezki’s roving lens.
A key to getting the tone of the film right is the relationship between Julio and Tenoch. It’s easy to forget that these two are performing, so seamless is their interaction, and it’s not surprising to learn that García Bernal and Luna have known each other since infancy. The boys are shallow and cynical and slaves to their hormones, but they delight in their wits and guard the secrets of each other’s weakness. Their banter is a rich, frenetic slang sprinkled with English phrases cribbed from movies and television. This is a generation that takes its cues from the American cultural empire, and one that has no illusion that the future will bring anything but more of the same. Traveling through the Mexican hinterland, they know that they are on the winning side of an unbalanced equation, but they’re not disposed to think deeply on it. Instead they count bodyguards at the society wedding and laugh at the suggestion that Tenoch’s father might be other than corrupt. They treat the poor with the gingerly respect we afford an unfamiliar, unexpected creature.
But to return to the sex. There’s no pleasure in harping on the old American-versus-foreign film distinctions when it comes to onscreen intercourse,but there is a truth to the sex in Tu Mamá that a thousand American Pies cannot achieve. It’s not that Americans aren’t obsessed with youthful sex–lord knows it fuels two-thirds of our economy, despite the moral matrimonial edicts from Washington–we just don’t do it right in the movies. We’re old pros at appropriating foreign cuisine, but the complex recipe of awkwardness, avidity, thrill, embarrassment, sincerity, and self-centeredness that is the essence of sex at that age continues to elude us. Larry Clark’s Bully made an attempt last year, but rubbed its unconvincing rawness in our faces until the whole movie felt like an irrelevant harangue. In Tu Mamá, the sex is inept, unconsidered, and self-serving, but joyous, too. It is everything a censor should object to, because it is painfully familiar, and its consequences remain unclear.
By the end of the trip, the countryside, the sea, and their own overheated passions have suffused Luisa and the boys. The lovemaking takes on tenderness, patience, and a twist that, in retrospect, seems inevitable (although that didn’t stop the man sitting next to me from groaning and covering his face). But all the intimacy is ultimately too much for Tenoch and Julio. Cuarón takes us down several octaves for the final note, which is fine, and does a little retroactive trimming of a loose plot thread, which is unfortunate. The paradoxes and vitality of this Mexico are as much a part of the story as anything else, and the movie is strongest when it mirrors this messiness. A sojourner and soul searcher from the Old World, Luisa tells the boys, “You are so lucky to live in a country as alive as Mexico.” Luckier every day, the movie reminds us, as more and more of what is unique to that life is drained away. Maybe the boys get the message, maybe they don’t. As anyone who has ever grown up knows, coming-of-age doesn’t necessarily mean getting it right. Sometimes it just means getting on with it.
Jesse Lichtenstein has worked in movie production and written about online film for The New Republic.