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It would have been very easy for Alfonso Cuaron to get steamrolled by Hollywood. His movie “A Little Princess” is charming and beautiful, and it was embraced by critics when released, but even with a re-release and a redesign of the ad campaign, Warner never quite figured out how to get people to actually see it. His second big Hollywood experience, “Great Expectations,” was a classic example of a promising filmmaker getting totally Foxed.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Cuaron went back to Mexico and made the film that turned him into a major filmmaker worldwide, and he did it on his terms. He told a story about class, about sex, and about friendship that resonated with audiences everywhere, and in the process, he launched both Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal as international stars. Even now, nine years later, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” is bracing and bold and unforgettable, and its earned a place on this list as an enduring and essential piece of world cinema.
Co-written with Cuaron’s brother Carlos, the screenplay for “Y Tu Mama Tambien” is both loose and lively and rich with an almost novelistic attention to detail. The film deals with the friendship between Tenoch (Luna) and Julio (Bernal), teenage friends who are fairly typical boys. They both have girlfriends who they would have sex with fifteen times a day if permitted, and in the hours they aren’t actually having it, they’re talking about it. When their girlfriends go away to Italy on vacation, the boys find themselves desperate for distraction. Tenoch is from a wealthy family, and his friendship with Julio is a bit of a class breach. That’s part of what makes it work. Tenoch has disdain for the people around him and the world of money, and the film offers up some very wry, very pointed commentary on the distance between the haves and the have-nots in Mexican culture, and the way the two worlds rub right up against each other at all times. Cuaron seems perfectly happy to digress when he’s interested in a minor character or a detail, and he lets the film follow those digressions in unexpected and fascinating ways.
When Tenoch and Julio go to a wedding reception, they run into a cousin of Tenoch’s who is a famous writer, and they are immediately captivated by his wife Luisa, played by Maribel Verdu. She’s “much older,” meaning a few years shy of 30, and both boys respond to her beauty and her presence. They also find themselves offended by the way Tenoch’s cousin talks down to them, and they intentionally spill some wine on him, then brazenly flirt with Luisa. They invite her on a vacation to a distant beach, both of them bullshitting something fierce. The beach they describe to her doesn’t even exist.
After the reception, they forget about the encounter until she learns that her husband has been unfaithful to her. She calls them and asks if they’re still going to the beach, and they decide to take her on an impromptu road trip, hoping they’ll be able to score with her sexually before she figures out that they made everything up. The trip turns out to be a life-changing experience for all of them, and sex is only one part of the equation.
It’s a major part, of course. You can’t talk about this film without acknowledging the frank and explicit way it handles the sexually-themed material. All three cast members bare themselves completely, but what makes the film memorable is the way it deals honestly with the emotional fallout from those encounters, and the way it accurately captures the awkward, painful first steps from adolescent curiosity to adult responsiblity. I included “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being” on this list, and it shares some attitudes with that movie in that Cuaron knows full well that personal connections are more significant than social separations, and the friction between the two are where the film’s drama seems to exist. I love the visual wit of Cuaron’s movie, the way he and his photographer (the brilliant Emmanuel Lubezki) capture Mexico’s squalor and beauty, sometimes both within the same frame, and the richly-realized performances not just from the leads but from every single cast member including extras we just barely see in passing.
This is a film that gets better with age, a film that grows in memory, and a film that rewards real study. It is one of the best movies in the last decade about adolescence, and I love that it not only found an audience but actually helped launch Cuaron to the respect that he absolutely deserves.
Next week, we’ll wrap up the alphabetical launch to this series, and then it’s going to be fun to follow the list wherever my whims mandate. I hope you guys are ready, because this year, we’re going to dig deep, and I think we’re even going to be re-launching “The Basics,” a companion series in which I challenge a younger film critic to fill in some primary gaps in their own movie knowledge. It’s always great to break news or talk about what’s next, but I think the mark of a real film fan is their hunger to constantly look backwards as well, and to constantly expand their own personal knowledge. I’ve seen thousands and thousands and thousands of films in my life, and I still feel like I’ve got so much I need to see before I can speak with any sort of authority, so when I suggest these films, I’m also pushing myself to explore which films formed me and to explore what I still have to look forward to in the future.
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