World Hum Travel Movie Club: ‘Y Tu Mamá También,’ Part One

Travel Blog  •  Eli Ellison, Eva Holland  •  04.24.08 | 5:27 PM ET

y tu mama tambienIn Alfonso Cuarón’s 2002 film Y Tu Mamá También, it’s a restless summer in Mexico City. Protestors are in the streets, and Tenoch and Julio—best friends who’ve just graduated from high school—are bored, their girlfriends overseas for the holidays. When an older woman in a failing marriage agrees to come along on a road trip in search of the perfect beach, it’s not long before the boys break one of the cardinal rules of their friendship—never sleep with another guy’s girl. Life lessons ensue. In this second installment of the World Hum Travel Movie Club, our occasional look at travel movies new and old, Eva Holland and Eli Ellison traded emails about the results. Here’s the first of two parts.

From: Eva
To: Eli
Subject: Boys Gone Wild

We seem to have a knack for picking movies with less-than-sympathetic lead characters. Director and cowriter, Cuarón, doesn’t hold back on the harsh reality of the average teenage boy’s priorities, and seeing Tenoch and Julio’s cavalier attitude to cheating on their girlfriends all vacation long didn’t endear them to me to start with. The girls aren’t even on the plane yet when the two boys start plotting their summer of debauchery. As for our Mrs. Robinson stand-in, Luisa, well, it’s too bad that her husband cheats on her. But reverse the genders in this movie, and see how many viewers think it’s cool for adults to soothe their marital heartaches by having sex with teenagers.

Still, as with Into the Wild, there’s a lot to like about “Y Tu Mamá También.” I’m not convinced that we’re supposed to love these characters. I may not have wanted either of those boys for a son-in-law, but I was certainly intrigued by their story. And likeable or not, I will give the actors (Diego Luna of “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” and Gael Garcia Bernal of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” both young and unknown when they made this flick) some major props for creating a completely convincing friendship. I can’t think of many buddy movies with more believable chemistry. What did you think? Am I being too harsh on our two young rogues?

Setting Tenoch and Julio aside for a moment, let’s talk Mexico. My only visit to the country was an all-inclusive deal, a high school grad trip to Acapulco, so I’m hardly an expert. But I think my favorite aspect of this movie was the way Cuarón slipped in little bits of social commentary, almost in passing—Tenoch and Julio passing the striking workers in Mexico City, Tenoch and Julio at the military checkpoint, and so on. We’re never being hit over the head with a mallet labeled “SOCIAL UNREST,” and no one’s wearing a T-shirt that says “GAP BETWEEN RICH AND POOR” or “CORRUPTION,” but these themes still manage to be present throughout. That kind of restraint in movie-making political commentary is so rare these days that it needs to be applauded wherever it’s found. I think you could argue that this movie is as much about class divisions and social unrest in Mexico as it is about friendship, love or simply two horny boys and a hot older woman on a road trip.

From: Eli
To: Eva
Subject: Mexican Pie

Not only do we pick movies with obnoxious leads, they force me to reflect on my youth. Not always fun. The awkward, rabbit-quick sex scenes (foreplay, anyone?) were all too familiar. But you don’t need to hear about my teenage trauma. Let’s talk about the movie’s problems.

A friend described it as a Mexican “American Pie” with a heart. Perhaps he’s read too many reviews, because that’s exactly what Y Tu Mamá‘s detractors have dubbed it, too. On the surface, they’re right. But you make a key point. Lost to them, amid the raunchy dialogue and sex-capades, is the fourth muy importante character: Mexico.

Your only south-of-the-border trip was an Acapulco all-inclusive? Bummer. Mexico is a beautiful country, shown-off here in all its ragged glory. But at times, I wasn’t keen on Cuarón’s approach to social commentary, usually depicted in voice-over-narrated visual asides (migrant worker run over by the bus, etc). It seemed a bit forced. No?

Yet in other scenes, the narration works a little better. At one point, the narrator reveals rich-kid Tenoch’s aversion to touching the toilet seat in middle-class Julio’s house. Later, the narrator talks about the freewheelin’ fisherman reduced to janitorial duty in the yet-to-be-built beach resort hotel. It’s heartbreaking and all too real.

Are you too harsh on our horny heroes? Not at all. Bernal and Luna give great performances because they’re not afraid to act as stupid as their characters. And as for buddy-movie chemistry, I’ll argue theirs ranks with some of the greats: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Hope and Crosby, The Defiant Ones.

Wow, I don’t even wanna touch this “reverse Luisa’s gender” business. Dangerous. But I’d like to know what you think of Luisa’s character. Her impulsive spirit sparks the road trip. She dominates the love triangle. Did you see her as an empowering female character? Or just a woman scorned, living out her fantasies with two sex-starved boys?

From: Eva
To: Eli
Subject: Michael Moore Goes To Mexico

I never felt like the social commentary was overly forced, but maybe that’s because the subject matter was so new to me. (Or, maybe it’s because my main point of comparison is the sledgehammer subtlety of Michael Moore.) Mexico’s troubles rarely flare up dramatically enough to make the international news—the country seems instead to be on a kind of slow simmer of low-key unrest, and I think Cuarón captured that nicely. There’s never any real danger on the road trip, just a vague sense of anxiety at some points, and sadness at others.

I have to say, the “American Pie” comparison surprises me. Sounds like someone over at rottentomatoes was getting a little too clever during a late-night writing session. As you’ve pointed out, the social commentary of Y Tu Mamá puts it in another realm altogether—but I think there’s more to it than that. “American Pie” is a much more straightforward, lightweight story about a group of generally well-meaning guys trying to get laid on prom night. “Y Tu Mamá,” on the other hand, feels more serious, even a little dark, from the beginning. As juvenile as the boys are, you can feel from the start that Cuarón is going to be throwing in at least a couple of twists along the way. I may not have figured out what he had in store for Tenoch, Julio and Luisa, but I knew something big was coming down the pipe. What about you?

As for Luisa: empowered female? To be honest, I thought she was the worst of the bunch. True, she sparks the road trip and pushes the boys out of their dull summer routine. And I suppose the clues Cuarón plants about the social divide between Tenoch and Julio suggest that their bond is guaranteed to hit a serious obstacle at some point, anyway, so the trials their friendship undergoes on the trip can’t be blamed entirely on her. But to my eye, she was a woman trying to seize her freedom and going about it in all the wrong ways. I won’t bring up the gender reversal again, but as loutish and foul-mouthed as our two boys are, they’re still young and really quite vulnerable when it comes down to it. Bad enough that she propositions a pair of teenagers, one after the other—but then, when they haven’t stopped fighting as a result, she has the nerve to lose it on them and complain about their emotional immaturity. Well, duh, lady. They’re 18-year-old boys—think back about 15 years, what did you expect?

One last question for you, as a Mexico veteran. I loved the way the film is shot in almost grainy, old-fashioned color. I don’t know if that was a budget issue or an artistic choice on Cuarón’s part, but the dusty, faded (but still beautiful) Mexico it created matched my mental images exactly. The pressed-tin shacks, fleabag motels, colorful laundry hanging out to dry—all of it seemed perfect. Which makes me wonder: does it match my daydreams because it is a dream Mexico? Has Cuarón shot selectively, cutting out the fast-food franchises and other touches of modernity to create a more rustic feel? Or is Tenoch and Julio’s Mexico the real deal?

Part Two

Eli Ellison

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

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