(And Your Mother Too)

Starring: Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, Maribel Verdú
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writing Credits: Alfonso Cuarón, Carlos Cuarón
Distributor: 20th Century Fox/Good Machine (Mexico 2002)
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 105 minutes

Near the end of the astonishing new film Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN (And Your Mother Too), one of the characters looks across the exquisite blue waters and tawny sand of the Mexican coastline and remarks, "this country...it breathes life." Although she is discussing the landscape, her insight might also be applied to the marvelous two hours of film that have preceded this singular cinematic moment. For in Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN, director Alfonso Cuarón has achieved the nearly impossible – constructing a modern work about adolescent rites of pubescent passage that is neither derivative nor derisive, predictable nor forced. It is, in short, a very welcome antidote to the nonsense that passes for teen films today. It shares more in common with classics of the genre – think The Graduate or Harold and Maude – than with American Pie and its paper-thin ilk.

That Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN comes to American shores unrated – rather than with an almost assured NC-17 rating – should probably come as no surprise, given our collective discomfort with all things sexual. It would be a crime of epic proportions, certainly, to allow teenagers to see their own lives portrayed with such clarity and honesty. (Insert your favorite Jack Valenti joke here.)

But the truth is that the rambunctious sexuality (and inherent confusion) of adolescence is rarely explored with the respect is deserves – it is much easier to crack jokes about hormones than to try to understand them. Let me be the first to express the hope that this film finds its way to the demographic it examines so thoughtfully via video and DVD, since the MPAA is making sure they don't see it on the big screen.

But enough carping...this is a film to celebrate, and there are a multitude of simple joys to be found in Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN. Of them, none is more thrilling, perhaps, than to see the reemergence of a major talent finding himself again. Director Cuarón is perhaps best known for the children's film A Little Princess, his English-language debut that garnered attention for its impeccable design and dreamlike atmosphere. His underappreciated follow-up, a surreal telling of Dickens' Great Expectations starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Anne Bancroft, barely made a ripple in Hollywood. Now, stripped down to a less ostentatious budget and reunited with the noted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Ali), Cuarón has crafted a simple triangle – two young friends and the older woman between them – in a film that teems with life and the unbridled joy of youth. Through his accomplished eyes, the world is still new enough to fascinate and marvel.

Lest you imagine this to be a retread of Jules and Jim, though, let me dissuade you of that idea. Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN is miles away from that classic. Most of the spirit and energy of this work is in its sparse elegance, sequences that engage the viewer not through cinematic gimmickry, but in an intersection of character and text. Often, Lubezki and Cuarón just pull back and let the moment take its own ride...a pleasure that few directors, in the age of Pearl Harbor and CGI battle sequences, know how to achieve. Less is most definitely more here, and the colors and lives of rural Mexico burst through the camera lens with their vivacious textures and intensity.

Thematically, Cuarón (who wrote the screenplay with his brother Carlos) has filled his story with metaphors that focus and enhance the road-trip narrative. Water, for instance, serves as a particularly important image…whether it is the abandoned pools (one at a private club, one at a dilapidated hotel) or sharing of a drink, or the ocean itself, water emerges as a place of discovery…an environment in which anything is truly possible for the threesome. And water is just the beginning…look beneath the surface of the story, and Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN has a bevy of surprises waiting for you.

Of course the story, revolving around a tangled trio, isn't too shabby itself. Best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) are perpetually horny 17-year-olds whose girlfriends have taken a trip to Europe, leaving them restless in that frustrating, endless summer before college. At a wedding their parents force them to attend, they encounter Luisa (Maribel Verdú), an older, beautiful woman whose marriage is falling apart. Sensing an opportunity, the boys hastily concoct a road trip to “Heaven's Mouth” – a stretch upon the Mexican coastline that they have fabricated – and invite Luisa along. But Luisa is hardly one of the young, dimensionless girls that inhabit their lives and fantasies, and the bewildering realities of the sensual and sexual relationship they develop cannot be easily ignored.

As the boys reach new levels of understanding about themselves and their friendship, and as Luisa struggles to recapture her sense of self, Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN reveals its trump card: three truly remarkable performances, actors deftly sidestepping the clichés of the teen genre and bravely exploring the nuances of each situation. Gael García Bernal, who came to international attention last year in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros, balances humor, frenetic energy, and quiet contemplation as Julio, a juggling act that makes one wonder...why he isn't already an international star? As Julio's more focused (and jealous) partner, Diego Luna (Before Night Falls) is less manic but just as intense. (His first intimate moments with Luisa, in a roadside hotel, are both kneeslappingly hilarious and heartbreakingly touching.)

Perhaps the hardest role, though, is that of Luisa, who has to simultaneously inhabit the worlds of temptress, friend, mother, pariah, lover, and guardian of Diego and Julio. For this, Cuarón has enlisted veteran Mexican actress Maribel Verdú (Goya In Bordeaux). Verdú is winsome without being weak, delicate without being fragile…in other words, ideally suited to the role. Seesawing back and forth between teasing the boys, mourning her failed marriage, and searching for direction, she becomes the film's effortless center, bringing an intensity to the screen that recalls the work of Sophia Loren.

With its liberal use of four-letter words, uninhibited nudity, graphic sex, and impressive intelligence, Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN won't be for everyone. It is perhaps one of the paradoxes of modern life -- the audiences that will skip Cuarón's passionate work are the ones most in need of seeing it. For those with more evolved cultural sensibilities and a love for artists working at the top of their game, however, this is the first film of 2002 that cannot be missed. Would that we all could 'breathe life' the way Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN does.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2002 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti, © 2003 Mixed Reviews. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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