In 2001 Alfonso Cuarón had already directed two big studio pictures, The Little Princess and Great Expectations. He would go on to direct more big studio affairs: a sci-fi thriller, Children of Men, one of the Harry Potter movies, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Gravity, an outer space VFX bonanza that won him a slew of Oscars and helped to legitimize 3D movie-making as a true artistic medium. But in 2001 he made Y Tu Mamá También, a Spanish language independent film with an unmistakably indie aesthetic and an uncompromising onscreen portrayal of sexuality.
Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) are best friends in Mexico City whose girlfriends are just leaving for a summer in Italy. Tenoch’s father is a successful (and wealthy) politician. Julio’s family is middle-class. The two boys are on the cusp of the sort of painful transition into adult life so often depicted in fiction. In many ways they are typical examples of teenage boys on film: loud, frenetic, crude, obnoxious, obsessed with sex, irritatingly self-assured (though secretly insecure), and tirelessly competitive. Unlike more typical examples (at least insofar as conscious intent is concerned), Tenoch’s and Julio’s friendship smolders with homoerotic energy.
While attending a wedding they meet Luisa (Maribel Verdú), the beautiful young wife of Tenoch’s cousin Jano. Luisa is several years their senior, and Jano is an insufferable prick, both to his young cousin and to his wife, to whom he has been unfaithful. Partly in retaliation for Jano’s infidelity, Luisa agrees to accompany Tenoch and Julio on a road trip to a secluded beach the two boys invented out of whole cloth in an attempt to impress her.
Their road trip together is, as these things often are, a catalyst for conflict, introspection, growth, and the like. The two boys try to impress Luisa with tales of their sexual conquests and the adolescent dimensions of their own personal mythology, the manifesto of the “charolastra” (roughly, “space cowboy”). Luisa, meanwhile, reveals some sense of her troubles with Jano and her own tales of adolescent love. All the while, sexual energy pushes and pulls the trio in a few different directions.
If that sounds banal, it’s only because my description isn’t doing it justice (partially in an attempt to conceal the less obvious twists and turns of the plot). One of this film’s strengths is in how it treats a fairly conventional coming of age story in thoroughly unconventional ways. It confronts with an unvarnished honesty and ragged fearlessness an aspect of young adult life (and life in general) that almost always has its rough edges airbrushed or is edited entirely out of existence. Y Tu Mamá También deals in this bold way not just with sexuality but with a partially hidden vocabulary of things that exist almost exclusively in private, things that are so rarely addressed directly but rather left to fester beneath the surface of so-called regular life.
Alfonso Cuarón wrote the screenplay with his brother Carlos. It’s excellent, setting up a rich and interconnected world of real people who have not just surface reality but internal lives as well. But perhaps the film’s true brilliance lies in the way it tells this story. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography takes a handheld approach, favoring long takes and a fluid, almost improvisatory style that frequently suggests the physical presence of a cameraman. This would be distracting if it weren’t for another narrative conceit unique to this picture – the use of an omniscient third person narrator. Daniel Giménez Cacho provides the voice of the narrator, who periodically interrupts the dialogue and diagetic sound (while the action continues onscreen) to give insight (often placing the story within the context of Mexico and its various political and social realities). Extensive voiceover can be a crutch in movies that lack the ability to communicate in more creative ways, but here the voiceover gives the film a sense of being more than cinematic, almost literary. This voiceover works in tandem with the movie’s visual style to suggest a personal narrator, a conscious witness.
Take for example the film’s opening scene. Tenoch and his girlfriend, Ana (Ana López Mercado), are having sex. Their youth and their nakedness (and their enthusiasm) are immediately apparent, and then, moments later, you realize that the camera, which physically enters through the doorway to Ana’s bedroom, is handheld, moving closer and closer, somewhat restlessly roving around the room. Finding a shot, then re-adjusting. Finding another shot and unstably holding focus. And so on. It’s hard to watch the scene without being reminded that on the other side of the fourth wall is a cameraman. When the camera starts to back out of the room, leaving through the doorway where it came in, the sound abruptly drops out and the narration begins. The effect is to fuse the two aesthetic conceits as the eyes and mouth of the same omniscient narrator.
Whatever the specific strengths of the film’s production, or the particular mechanics of the plot, Y Tu Mamá También is a unified whole, each part contributing to the yearning, bittersweet, and faintly tragic experience that comes from watching it. Despite its specificity, being as it is a unique and individual story about particular people in a particular place, there is also something universal about Y Tu Mamá También. It evokes, very strongly, the energy and intensity of youth and its transition to something more mature, more consciously aware of its drives and how those drives relate to the person one might eventually become. That experience is a universal one, and the viewer’s individual sense of it – and the unique events specific to his or her own experience – become at times palpably present while watching Y Tu Mamá También.