“A married woman takes an unlikely road trip with two teenagers, to find the perfect beach.”
Directed By: Alfonso Cuaron Rating: NC-17, 106 min
At several points in my life I’ve found myself, without having really known how or why, standing in an unfamiliar landscape among strangers that the day before had been my room and my friends. These moments are the crossings we make into adulthood and whenever these crossings end, and I look back to discover when it began, I’ll sometimes recognize an old friend loitering on a childhood corner, waiting for me to return, or sometimes an absence where a friend used to be. Most people leave behind a host of fair-weather friends in the first crossing to adulthood, when their secrets begin to ripen, and they find themselves divided from each other by the threat of sex and widening gulfs of understanding. Later in life, its not unusual to wake up on the floor with a hangover and find yourself moored in an alien place the color and shape of your apartment, unsure when the sky changed hue and how the walls grew cold. Despite how much the change of landscape shocks us, and despite that these moments come along more than once, the actual events take us unaware at the time of their unfolding and we have no idea that we’re in the middle of making a crossing to a land closer to death. These moments catch us in the lull of complacency, in routines, and during the haze of adolescence, when we spend each endless day dreaming with dreamers about the spark that will ignite the future. When we arrive at our new lives, soaked and unprepared, we’re always shocked at the change and by who we left behind. Looking back at our old friends, made refugees by time, we realize that the change was long in coming, that we were oblivious as vagabonds on the back of a stirring giant.
“Life is like the foam of the sea,” says Louisa, in Y Tu Mama Tambien, a film, which depending on how you look at it, is about a woman who leaves her husband or two reckless teens, Tenoch and Julio, on a road trip with a mysteriously eager adult woman. I love this film and I’m surprised that I do. I’m as surprised by my love for this film as I am by my love for Louisa, who is the heart of this story and one of my favorite female characters in any any film. I’ve been holding off watching it for years, first made suspicious by the person who recommended it to me, by the rating, and then by the premise which looks similar to Weird Science: the two young men, against all odds, get adopted by a brutally hot cougar, except that it doesn’t stop at lingerie. However, when I saw that Cuaron directed it, my respect for Children of Men and lead actor Gael Garcia Bernal demanded that I give it a look. Let me just say, that there should be a position in the movie business for justifying marketing mistakes. If I counted correctly, half the posts on this site in the last three weeks make mention of them.
Even though on the cover, the two teens writhe with Louisa, the film grapples with much darker questions than a young man’s infatuation with an older woman. It only appears to be so simple. The movie’s structure puts you at first firmly and cleverly in the point of view of Tenoch and Julio, to give you the false impression, that yes, you’re about to watch something extremely self gratifying. Tenoch and Julio, like most seventeen year olds, are only just bearable. Anyone who’s met a duo of seventeen year olds can recognize this pair and I have to admit, when I started watching this film, my finger hovered dangerously close over the ‘Escape’ button that would take me back to the Netflix selection screen. Tenoch is rich and Julio has less money so they spend their time at Tenoch’s house, smoking pot, drinking, and planning red light odysseys. They smoke, drive, sneak quickies and disparage figures of authority. They extract dubious promises from their girlfriends – who are leaving for Italy – despite the fact that neither of the duo nor their girlfriends have any intention of not cheating on each other. You can’t really blame them and in the end, you’re just annoyed by teenagers. What can be said about Tenoch and Julio can be said about any two unscarred young men: they’re innocent as they are stupid, as brave as they are inexperienced, and charming only because of the brief span of innocence’s life. Loss hasn’t left them scars to measure things by and they only make promises to see if they can. To them, life is experimentation. They have no idea what they’re reaching for.
At a wedding, Tenoch and Julio follow a beautiful woman on a whim, who turns out to be the wife of Tenoch’s unlikable cousin. He’s a writer – imagine that. The boys press Louisa to go on the hunt for the most perfect beach in the world and she very tactfully declines. So we meet one of my favorite characters that I’ve met in a film – Louisa. Louisa, played by Ana Morelos, stole my heart from the moment I saw her. She manages to be awkward and yet stunning, fiercely brilliant and yet unsure, and when we see her for the first time, sheathed in a sheer peach dress that a seventeen year old might have dressed her in, she possesses a haunting dignity. She is the girl in high school you fell in love with who never believed she was beautiful. Later, after a certain event, she decides to take the unlikely offer of the road trip with the boys. I fell in love with her most in the car, where Tenoch and Julio take turns to impress Louisa. As someone who already passed seventeen a while ago and can look back on it, it was remarkably touching to watch an older women treat these boys so kindly when she could be so cruel, especially knowing what I do now about Louisa. Louisa, aware of all the shadows the boys miss, wields the power of a goddess and yet she remains benevolent to Tenoch and Julio.
Like two mortals stunned by the presence of a goddess, Tenoch and Julio consider the possibility of sleeping with Louisa as desirable as it is unimaginable. But this trip marks a departure from the expectations of adolescence where desires hang like paintings on the wall, vivid, untouchable and pleasant. To their utter surprise, Louisa does sleep with them and for the first time they begin to feel the latent jealousy beneath the surface of their friendship. While the boys and Louisa talk about their sex lives and their youthful manifestos, a vast landscape passes outside the window. Dark omens stand in fields with weathered, peasant faces. But the spell of an adolescent summer has caught the boys spellbound and we view these momentary shadows through the ache of sunlight.
For most of the movie, tragedies, deaths, only brush the boy’s awareness, leaving no more than a dark fingerprint. We get the feeling that the forces of the adult world, passed outside the window of the car, have made a compact with adolescence that as long as Louisa remains in the car, they’ll stay to the corners of the film. Early in the movie, Julio complains about a traffic jam, not having realized that it was caused by the death of a brick layer. As they pass the body, Julio looks back once at the bloody sheet and then quickly turns but the narrator lingers on the moment. While the boys evince the remarkable and infuriating ability of youth to skate over the rotten ice that older people flounder in, a narrator shadows the film, pointing out when tragedies occurred, the blank corner where an unknown man died, the nameless town where someone unimportant lived. These deaths leave small dents in the golden hull of the boy’s summer. The narrator is aware of it. Louisa is aware of it. And we are aware of it. We are watching the boys on a journey, them unknowing that they will meet death, and Louisa, keenly aware of how fragile they are, seeking to make the meeting a gentle one.
A note about the rating. At the time of its release, there was some press about the NC-17 that was stamped on this film. Some viewers were outraged by the sex and some directors and critics were outraged by the rating. Personally, I feel that the movie both deserves its rating and that people should calm down. Nudity and sex don’t really offend me except when used carelessly, but for those who do find it offensive, steer clear of this film. There’s a lot of what a seventeen year old would go on a road trip for. I do object to sex used clumsily but to my surprise I didn’t find Alfonso Cuaron’s use of sex gratuitous – though I could see why some people did. I think I had such a mild reaction to the sex in the film because it transported me so effectively back to the whirlwind desires of a seventeen year old. It’s not cheap crowd pleasing nudity unless you count transforming your audience a cheap trick. Watching Louisa seduce the boys, I felt like a boy myself.
I left that movie with a strange feeling, like I’d left a friend behind in the viewing. I realized that Julio and Tenoch, who I found so annoying, had actually been my friends at some point and I’d forgotten them. Or maybe they remind me of a younger version of myself that I resent because I can’t relive. I remember that one point, on a summer day when the heat had pressed the hours featureless from the sunlight and bleached the date from the calendar, I embarked on a journey I thought had no end because I never saw it beginning. However, these journeys do have a beginning, but only one that can be discerned looking back, after it ends, and ends finally with us somewhere we never knew before.
My Rating: 9.0