Outrageous without being offensive, provocatively and unapologetically sexual, alive to the possibilities of life and cinema, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien” is a sophisticated film happily masquerading as something off the cuff.
Nominally a simple road movie about two Mexican teenagers taking off to look for a mythical beach in the company of a suddenly available woman of 28, “Y Tu Mama” manages to be comic, dramatic, erotic, sociological and even political, all without breaking a sweat.
Cuaron’s picture, co-written with his brother Carlos, is more than anything reminiscent of the classics of the French New Wave. Echoing films like Jean-Luc Godard’s recently reissued “Band of Outsiders” and Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” it makes exceptional use of a detached, omniscient narrator, but the parallels don’t stop there.
“Y Tu Mama” also echoes the unmistakable freshness and excitement of the Nouvelle Vague, the sense of joy in being alive and making movies, that made those works distinctive and unforgettable.
To be able to turn out something this apparently effortless and natural paradoxically takes a background of craft and experience. Cuaron caught the eye of the studio system with his Mexican debut film, “Love in the Time of Hysteria,” which got parlayed into a pair of Hollywood literary adaptations, the well-done “A Little Princess” and the much less so “Great Expectations.”
Wanting, after that encounter, to “go off and get my hands dirty,” Cuaron and his longtime collaborator, gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (twice Oscar-nominated, for “Little Princess” and “Sleepy Hollow”), returned to their homeland to make what turned out to be a sexually candid, deeply Mexican film that pulses with energy and spirit.
“Y Tu Mama” (even its title is a bragging sexual reference) begins with a graphic bedroom scene in front of a huge poster for “Harold and Maude” between 17-year-old Tenoch (Diego Luna) and a girlfriend about to head off for a summer in Italy. Tenoch’s homeboy Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal of “Amores Perros”), it turns out, is being left behind in similar fashion.
Formidably self-centered best friends who do everything from getting high to pleasuring themselves together, Tenoch and Julio are dripping with attitude and conceit. Though their humor runs to flatulence jokes and their interest in the outside world is confined to interchanges like “left-wing chicks are hot"/"totally,” they nevertheless view themselves as epitomes of knowledge and sophistication.
The film’s attitude toward these two is one of the keys to its success. “Y Tu Mama” is neither complicit with the boys nor hostile to them; rather, aided by the voice-over, it views them from an amused and interested distance, entertained by their energy and sass but knowing full well what essentially clueless space cowboys they are, not bad kids but spoiled by Tenoch’s position as a child of privilege and affluence.
One of the casual ways that voice-over asserts its influence, makes political points and sets a shrewd tone is by letting us know that these two are not from the same world. Julio is supported by a working single mother while Tenoch’s father is a Harvard-educated politician once accused of selling tainted food to the poor. He was going to call his son Hernan (after, as Mexican audiences are likely to assume, the conqueror Cortes) but impulsively chose an Aztec name instead because they were momentarily fashionable.
Bored beyond belief by their vapid, druggy summer, the friends perk up at a wedding so establishment the joke is that there are more bodyguards than guests. The boys all but drool over the beautiful Spanish-born Luisa (Maribel Verdu), the wife of one of Tenoch’s cousins. When she asks about Mexico’s beaches, they make one up out of thin air, call it Heaven’s Mouth and offer to drive her there if she’s ever in the mood.
After a phone call from her absent husband, who tearily confesses to what is not his first infidelity, Luisa is suddenly in the mood. Though they have no idea where they’re going, the boys are too excited at the trip’s fantasy prospects not to agree and, more unready than any of them realize, off they all go on a classic coming-of-age jaunt.
Not surprisingly, a getting-to-know-you period happens first. Luisa is not the ethereal philosopher the boys fantasized but a lively and down-to-earth dental technician. The friends like her so much they reveal the existence of their secret society, the Charolastras, which has precepts like “the truth is cool but unattainable.”
Gradually, as the three get more complicit, emotional and, yes, sexual complications, both erotic and comical, take center stage. These underline quite a different precept: Be careful what you wish for; you might actually get it. Yet no matter how unsettling things become, “Y Tu Mama’s” emotional balance, its ability to avoid the gratuitous and keep everything recognizably human, prevents the material from being off-putting.
A key factor in this is the skill of the actors, all at ease with the film’s dramatic complexities and sexual content. First among equals, however, is Spanish actress Verdu, who starred in Fernando Trueba’s Oscar-winning “Belle Epoque” several years back. Her Luisa is a rich, empathetic character, uncertain yet brave in her willingness to be alive to her emotions, with all the risks that that attitude entails.
Though the film’s advance word will prepare audiences for “Y Tu Mama’s” sexual antics, passion is not this trip’s only component. Cuaron and his collaborators are intent on giving us a vivid, kaleidoscopic vision of roadside Mexico, from local festivities to steers blocking the highway. When Luisa says, “You’re so lucky to live in Mexico; it breathes with life,” she is speaking for the film as well.
Simultaneously, “Y Tu Mama” is making offhanded but pointed comments about the country’s political situation. Though they rarely mention it, the three drive through an endless series of police-military checkpoints. And the voice-over, calmly noting things like a laborer hit by a bus because no place to cross a highway exists for miles or a fisherman who will soon be forced to become a janitor because of the construction of a luxury hotel, casually lets us know what the power of a ruling oligarchy can mean for ordinary lives.
Though “Y Tu Mama” has its serious aspects, pointing them out may make this graceful film sound different from what it is. What could be more satisfying than strong characters, a sense of humor and a handful of unabashedly erotic scenes, including one that climaxes with a wonderful twist? Jazzed by film’s potential to tell all kinds of stories in all kinds of ways, director Cuaron did more than get his hands dirty. He struck a kind of gold.
No MPAA rating. Times guidelines: extremely explicit sexual scenes and very strong language.
‘Y Tu Mama Tambien’
Gael Garcia Bernal...Julio
Released by IFC Films. Director Alfonso Cuaron. Producer Sergio Aguero. Executive producer Jorge Vergara. Screenplay Carlos Cuaron and Alfonso Cuaron. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Costumes Gabriela Diaque. Production design Miguel Angel Alvarez. Art directors Diana Quiroz, Monica Chirinos.
In limited release.