Y Tu Mama Tambien is inauspicious, but like many great films, it reaches for and touches the world and humanity in everyday actions and seemingly small gestures. Here, for instance, we have teen sexuality, laid out with all its romanticism and reality, filled with the kinds of empty-but-meaningful gestures that define humanity’s desires and their foibles. Director Alfonso Cuaron is a highly personal director, but he’s always most interested in defining his characters in relation to the world they inhabit. His two protagonists here are immature and petty yet deeply human, reflections of a society that won’t admit it has given birth to them and which they, initially, want no part in. He gives us a profoundly human story, built on the eternal humanness of sex as a marker of adulthood and childishness, and given life by Cuaron’s wonderfully and contrapuntally painterly version of sloppy, slovenly reality.
As per usual, a simple plotline reaps large rewards because it allows the subtext of the film to stew impressionistically in its images. Here we have two young men on the verge of adulthood and whose girlfriends are leaving for a trip to Italy. Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) use this as an opportunity to screw around and enjoy themselves, soon meeting an older married woman, Luisa (Maribel Verdu) who they impress with knowledge of a secluded, magical beach that doesn’t exist. When she accepts, they use the opportunity to enjoy her company and go on a road-trip to nowhere, and everywhere, as they try to figure out a beach to stop at, all while much knottier questions about sexuality, adulthood, and life percolate.
Thus, the film is a road-trip movie, but the trip, as with the best road trip movies, isn’t only physically excursionary but mentally exploratory, even unmooring. Ultimately, the film is about adolescent desires for sexuality that serve to not so much bring them into adulthood as to hold them away from its dangers. The adolescents share this desire, but the film is less about what they share than the world which threatens to tear the two of them apart. Early in the film, the two are close friends; we see them engaging in parallel acts, such as having sex with their girlfriends, but what we initially see as parallel eventually reveals great differences, differences which manifest along class lines. When Tenoch has sex, it has an air of controlled mystery, while Julio’s is more raw passion; Tenoch’s is unpressured by time and lit like a scene from a romance novel, while Julio’s is hurried and harried, strained by external considerations. Julio’s sex also comes and goes quickly in the film, rushed by the world outside even as Tenoch’s sexual encounters have the freedom, and the privilege, to breathe. Julio comes from a working-class Leftist family, while Tenoch is devoutly upper-class, a barrier the two initially seem to cross with ease. In many senses, Y Tu Mama Tambien is the story of the two boys attempting to ensconce themselves in a world where those differentials vanish, searching for a place that is essentially permissive to a visionary equality. It is in their search, however, that they breach an adulthood that is distinctly restrictive to that vision.
The film takes place across the backdrop of the 2000 Mexican elections, a political conflict the two protagonists aspire to leave behind or forego but which innately manifests in them even in their attempted displacement. For these two, they play out class unconsciously in the only way they know how: sex and scatology, and the way they mock each other. The film politicizes the personal, encapsulating the way that class plays out even when the two don’t realize it. The film certainly isn’t unsympathetic to the New Left of the era (the fisherman scene makes the film’s empathy and understanding clear) but it emphasizes the everyday minutiae of people who aren’t consciously political, thereby discovering politics in the margins of quotidian activity.
The film, of course, is also about gender. Throughout the film, it is Cortes who continuously holds power over the two boys, an adult, mature woman whose sexuality drives their acts and who is the film’s one true agent. The film is as much about the two men trying to define themselves, at first communally, then competitively, and finally communally again, in relation to their ability to control her. The film illuminates the ways in which they define their relationship to each other as adolescent men through their sexuality, and their relationship to each other as adults through their trying to attain power over women. In the end, however, the film doesn’t shy away from the homoerotic nature of the relationship: the only way they have to relate to each other is through having sex with women, trying to use her body as a canvas on which they play out their self-worth for and to each other.
Visually, the film elegantly blends and interweaves styles to capture the fractured world of its two adolescent main characters. When we see broad shots of cityscape and especially beach it’s hard not to claim Romanticism. But that’s precisely the point. They do after all find the beach, even though it doesn’t really exist except in their own minds. What matters is they find something that captures their mind’s eye, but this ostensible reprieve is always-already enmired in the social and the political. For instance, the film’s most touching scene involves a fisherman on this beach desperately arguing for his livelihood as it is stripped away by the horizons of big business. As this beach brings the two boys toward their mythical life away from life, it painstakingly draws them back into a world they will soon have to inhabit and the differences that will fester and fissure between them, suggested in the grainy, verite-adjacent camera that cuts through and undermines the film’s romanticism. Similarly, the naturalistic texture of some of the visuals contrast with an intentionally, and I think wryly, arch narrator who revels in his own artificial inclination as he provides information about the characters. Most film narration is cheap and tacky, serving to tell audiences unnecessary information in an inelegant manner; here, the narration doesn’t fit, and Cuaron knows it doesn’t, treating it like a confessional that drives into clarity the limits of the boys’ vision Cuaron captures with his camera.
I could go on and on. I could write about how the film’s unchained camera elegiacally moves through and around the characters to give us not them as individuals but them as grains in a larger world. Throughout the film, even when they try to move away from society, they remain visually connected to it as a marker of their existence within it, a perpetual tragedy they must come to terms with. I could write about one of the most exotically alluring and transcendental shots I’ve ever witnessed in a film: that late film shot where Maribel Verdu does a labyrinth around a bar to arrive at a jukebox and then transfixes the camera as she coaxes it to retreat, walking it to position as if it were Tenoch or Julio caught up in her spell. Here, it’s impossible not to “get” what mystery Tenoch and Julio see in her. Cuaron is a visual director, the kind who massages dangerous and seemingly impossible shots out of the camera, something he would do to further transformative effect in his 2006 film Children of Men, also about people in transition. This shot here, however, may be the most transformative and affecting thing he ever filmed.
In the film’s conclusion, we learn that the only real figure the trip was an escape for was Cortes, who had grown up earlier and had come to terms with the world. She, in fact, had been using the trip to do so, while the other two wanted to put off the world. The film is sexually potent, even seductive, but it’s also melancholy from beginning to end in its evocations of life’s transitions, and ultimately, life’s stagnancy. Even as the two boys grow up, they’re also left somewhat the same, as their adolescent posturing gives way to the adult “masculinity” they gestured toward as children and which they achieve only because it is more childish and immature than we want to admit. In some ways, Y Tu Mama Tambien is just another “that one summer” movie. But it’s a transformative summer for these two seemingly insignificant teenagers trying to be children but coming to terms with the childishness of adult masculinity in doing so. Cuaron’s film alternates painstaking realism with the sort of painterly romanticism that captures hopes and dreams rather than reality, evoking existence pushing up against desire as the two try desperately to interlock.