Review:  ‘José’ explores a gay love story in Guatemala amid an age of uncertainty


“José” is hardly the first movie to spotlight a young person navigating their homosexuality in a repressive and perilous environment. Nonetheless, this sophomore feature from Chinese-born director Li Cheng, who co-wrote with George F. Roberson, feels like a singular and essential entry in that subset of LGBTQ coming-of-age films with an international beat.

José (Enrique Salanic) is a poor, gay 19-year-old living with his devoted and devout single mother (Ana Cecilia Mota) in a humble Guatemala City apartment. They both survive on the minimal wages they earn selling fast food: José works hustling passing motorists into a shuco (hot dog) joint; mom is an unlicensed sandwich vendor. They share a quiet domesticity that appears to include a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” silence about José’s sexuality. But mom is more aware than she may initially seem and prays — alone, aloud and a lot — for her son’s safety and salvation.

Meanwhile, José, who discreetly hooks up with other guys on a Grindr-type app (his phone is truly his lifeline), meets and falls for Luis (Manolo Herrera), a handsome construction worker who moved to the city from coastal Izabal. José and Luis form a tender, increasingly intimate bond -- both physically and emotionally -- one that’s separate from the world around them and yet, in its own careful way, very much a part of it. Their motorbike journey out to the countryside proves a lovely and lyrical romantic interlude.


But when Luis announces he wants to relocate again — and for his lover to go with him — it’s a bridge too far for José, uncertain how he could leave his needy, adoring mother and familiar surroundings. As written and performed it’s a poignant dilemma, which plays out in credible and evocative, if perhaps overly meandering and (purposely) imprecise fashion. That José’s final actions, which take to him to some ancient Mayan ruins, are fueled, in part, by a telling chat he has with his grandmother (Alba Irene Lemus) during a visit to her rural farm, adds a nice touch of intergenerational synchronicity.

When it comes to their characters’ personal details and histories, Cheng and Roberson, who lived in Guatemala for two years to research and shoot the film (“José” has a deeply vivid sense of place), largely mete out specifics on a need-to-know basis. This dialogue-light tale often leaves it to the viewer to decipher certain story points, while relying on imagery to do the rest.

The script also drops in several strands and moments — an earthquake, a street robbery, a budding romance between José’s co-workers, and more — that have meaning but don’t pay off as they might in a more traditional narrative. Still, they all add up to create a kind of observational patchwork that jibes with the movie’s neorealist style and understated tone.

“José,” which won the Queer Lion award at 2018’s Venice International Film Festival, is also filled with fine, naturalistic performances from its indigenous cast of nonprofessional actors. Salanic, who was recently prevented from entering the U.S. for the movie’s premiere due to enhanced domestic travel restrictions (authorities dubbed the American-educated actor a “flight risk”), brings his character to life with a stirring well of decency and reserve. Mota, a professional psychologist in real life, displays a touching and authentic vigilance, while Herrera infuses Luis with a compelling mix of warmth and self-possession.

Cheng and cinematographer Paolo Giron often keep a respectful distance from José, utilizing effective long shots that can underscore both location (the busy street corner where José meets his dates, for one) and feeling (from fear to alienation to elation). At other times, the camera remains behind its subject, employing either tracking or stationary shots that convey their own emotional or thematic jolt.

Although José’s sexual encounters, which often take place in cheap hourly rental rooms, are frankly presented, his dating app communiqués are never seen; Jose’s eyes during those frequent, furtive glances at his phone screen say it all. As does the ambivalence we witness during his random, non-Luis hookups, even with those men who show interest in José beyond the bedroom.


But growing up gay in a land rife with poverty, violence and intolerance, how can someone like José not be uncertain about what he wants from life — or believes he can even attain? It’s one of the many concepts this small film explores with timeliness and insight.


In Spanish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 7, Laemmle Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles