Classic Circuit: Cuarón’s Beautiful Ode to Youthful Freedom in ‘Y Tu Mamá También’

AwardsCircuit is proud to present “CLASSIC CIRCUIT!

Formerly known as “Historical Circuit,” the weekly series will take a look at any film, from any year in history, with a heavy emphasis on the films within the Criterion Collection.  You won’t just find reviews within these columns, as the AwardsCircuit team will be exploring video and interviews from the filmmakers and artists who stood behind these features.  You can find these films on The Criterion Channel.  Any other focus on classic films will be noted as such, along with the list of streaming platforms and channels that carry them.

CRITERION CHALLENGE

FILM: “Y Tu Mamá También” (Spine #723)

  • YEAR: 2001
  • COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: Mexico
  • DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuarón
  • WRITER(S): Carlos Cuarón, Alfonso Caurón
  • CAST: Meribel Verdú, Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Daniel Giménez Cacho

SYNOPSIS:

Two teenage boys, Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) are best friends in Mexico in 1999. Although Julio is lower-middle-class from a single-mother household and Tenoch comes from a wealthy family with a father who is a high-ranking government official, the two are close as brothers. With their last summer before heading off to university upon them and their girlfriends headed to Italy, the two boys must entertain themselves.

 Until one day, at the wedding of one of Tenoch’s family members, the two boys happen upon Luisa (Maribel Verdú), the attractive, Spanish young wife of Tenoch’s cousin Jano (Juan Carlos Remolina). While trying to impress Luisa, the two boys talk of a road trip to the beach Heaven’s Mouth, one of the most beautiful beaches around and invite Luisa along – the only thing is the boys are making it up.

Unhappy in her marriage, Luisa calls the boys up the next day saying she’ll take them up on their offer. After the boys scramble to get this trip together and borrow the car from Julio’s sister, the threesome embark on the journey that will change all their lives and test the bonds of their friendship. Sexual encounters lead to betrayal, jealousy and brutal honesty, begging the questions, “who is seducing who” and “is their bond of friendship strong enough to survive?”

COMMENTARY:

The film cold opens with two teenage couples having sex, which leads the audience to think that this is just another sex-filled teen movie with no substance and gratuitous sex just for shock value. But this film is not that at all, it is so much more. Alfonso Cuarón‘s story is a frank and uninhibited look at carefree adolescence. The film is a beautifully captured story of self-discovery that teaches the lesson that sex has the power to bring people together and push them apart. This film is more than just an adolescent male fantasy.

Cuarón’s characters are so vivid and naturalistic. There is a true sincerity in the performances of the two friends, partially because the two lead actors are childhood friends in real life. The interplay between all three of them on the journey is so authentic. You could feel the sexual tension, the frustrations, the sadness, and the youthful wildness. The scene where the title phrase is uttered, “y tu mamá también,” is a great mix of carefree adolescence, honesty, seduction, introspection and a hint of desperation for happiness. There is a certain freedom to the actors’ portrayals and the film as a whole.

That freedom really comes through in the film as Cuarón does not want this film to be influenced by Hollywood production techniques (dollies, close-ups, and dissolves). Rather, he wants it to have a more realistic and authentic feel. The director sites 1962’s French New Wave film “Adieu Philippine” as his main inspiration for the love triangle, wide car shots and narration. Shot with a handheld camera for that low-budget road movie feel, the film has a more documentary-realist style to it. The script itself is minimal so that the young actors could improvise, also lending itself to the authentic feel.

The director’s use of an omniscient narrator to fill the audience in on details that the audience is not privy to seeing is a great added touch. Stylistically, the narration stands out and is memorable, as the background goes silent and it’s almost like a momentary flashback or flash-forward that the characters subconsciously go through while the present-day scene is still happening. Another element that makes this film a classic is the fact that the director, and the film itself, does not take a moralistic stance on the hedonistic behaviors of the characters involved; it is dealt with in such a matter-of-fact manner. 

Yet another element that makes this film a masterpiece is Cuarón’s use of Mexico as a character. He consistently spotlights the lives of his countrymen and women in his works. Mexico does not fade into the background or serve only as a setting for the story to take place; Mexico itself is the fourth main character on this road trip. The director and cinematographer – renowned Emmanuel Lubezki – masterfully shine a spotlight on the country’s geography, politics, people and culture, a running theme in much of Cuarón’s filmography.

WHAT MAKES THIS A “CRITERION” FILM:

Criterion spotlights great works of cinematic art from around the world, whether classics or contemporary, that deepen viewers’ appreciation of the art form. “Y Tu Mamá También” is a new age masterpiece, fitting of the distinction. From the events taking place in background during the road trip to the amount of time each boy’s sexual encounter lasts, everything is calculated and thought out to the smallest detail. This film is masterfully directed and beautifully shot and acted, making it an international classic. It’s the stylistic triumph of a first-class director who wants to get back to his roots using universal themes that would appeal to audiences around the world. 

HOW HAS THIS INFLUENCED MODERN CINEMA?

An Oscar-nominee for Best Original Screenplay, “Y Tu Mamá También” was a product of “New Mexican Cinema” that achieved crossover success in the American film market. The film even broke Mexican box office numbers. “Y Tu Mamá También” took the classic “road trip,” more comedic movie and gave it a level gravitas, the effect of which can be seen in more modern road trip depictions. This film opened to critical praise and was distributed in 40 countries. 

“Y Tu Mamá También” received a boost in publicity because of its rating board controversy in Mexico. Cuarón and his team argued that the Mexican government giving the film an “18+” rating was illegal political censorship. The film was even released in the U.S. without a rating because there was no way of getting around an “NC-17” rating due to the graphic depiction of sex and drug use in the film. But the gratuitous depictions pushed the envelope with the teenage sex,  in a way that doesn’t teeter on exploitation like a lot of films do. This showed audiences that it could be done matter-of-factly, without making the audience feel ashamed. It’s a balance that a lot of today’s more serious teenage coming of age films try to strike. 

The more realistic, documentary-style approach to filming is another element that today’s directors try and emulate. This showed that social commentary can also be beautiful and seductive. The influence of this film can also be seen in more recent films like 2013’s “Adore” in which two boyhood friends “seduce” older women and the effects it has on their friendship and lives in general. That film also uses Australia as a central character and manages to capture the beauty of the country. 

CLOSING THOUGHTS:

Although less than twenty years old, “Y Tu Mamá También” is an instant classic. This film sucks the viewer in and you’re immersed in the freedom of the characters in this coming-of-age story. Included in the New York Times’s “Best 1000 Movies Ever Made” list, this film is definitely a must-see. And it doesn’t hurt that it helped catapult it’s young male stars (Garcia Bernal and Luna)  to international stardom and solidified Cuarón as one of the preeminent directors of our time.

“Y Tu Mamá También” is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

GRADE: (★)

What are your thoughts on “Y Tu Mamá También”? Do you think it deserves to be a Criterion film? Let us know in comments below.

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