Kate’s review published on Letterboxd:
“You are so lucky, to live in a country like Mexico.”
There’s one particular shot near the end of Y Tu Mama Tambien (describing it is not really too much of a spoiler, if I spare the context) that stuck with me long after the credits rolled. Luisa, Maribel Verdu’s lost twentysomething who moved from Spain and married for money, is on the phone with someone she is now somehow forgiving despite their horrid betrayal. Reflected on the glass on the other side of the screen, her teenaged travel companions, Julio and Tenoch, goof off and play pool. In a stunning one-shot, Luisa hangs up and breaks down—and outside, the boys, unnoticed, play on. The decision Luisa makes in that moment, if not shortly after, will inform the climax (hah) of the film and change the boy’s lives forever. She has two options, in this otherwise perfect night on a picturesque beach, with these two boys laughing without a care in the world—she can let them go on being oblivious, in their own way innocent, for the rest of their lives, sleeping on the unspoken. Or, she can slap them awake. If someone asked me to pack all of Alfonso Cuaron’s stunning film into one shot (a cut I’d only make with a gun to my head, mind), it would undoubtedly be this single image—innocence and knowledge, seeing each other but separated by glass, a barrier broken at everyone’s peril.
Julio and Tenoch have just graduated high school. They bang their girlfriends without much finesse and send them off to a sightseeing trip around Europe, immediately planning a summer filled with sex, drugs, and poor life choices. Tenoch is rich and Julio is poor, but to them, this barely seems to matter; they are the kind of blood brothers that cannot be broken by anything. At the wedding of one of Tennoch’s family members, they meet a late-twenties woman, Luisa, who they attempt to hit on with a promise to take her to a supposedly glorious beach called “Heaven’s Mouth”—only to find out that Luisa is married to Tennoch’s cousin. However, the audience soon finds their marriage unstable as everything else the film first presents as fact, and Luisa agrees to hop into the boy’s car and head out to the water.
This is the DVD-back summary of Y Tu Mama Tambien. It’s also only about ten percent of the actual film, or at least the tip of the iceberg, hiding endless depths underneath. Tambien is one of the most multi-layered narratives I’ve ever seen, cleverly hiding as a coming-of-age flick. Peel back the layers and you’ll find class, sexuality, danger, mortality, death, life, poverty, politics, and yes, okay, also *a lot* of nudity, but it’s there for a reason, I promise: don’t let the urban legends about the film’s incredibly graphic sex scenes turn you off. In fact, the scenes themselves probably will turn you off. They’re some of the least sexy things I’ve ever seen on film, because the sex in Y Tu Mama Tambien, just like everything else in Y Tu Mama Tambien, isn’t actually about sex. Absent the usual trappings of porn-perfect Hollywood fucking, they represent life experience, youthful ego, power plays and desperate despair; they are as fundamental an extension of the narrative as ever seen before.
Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubetzki exhibit some truly masterful camerawork here, using long takes and faraway two-shots to alternately unite the group against their warring country or divide them when the subtext starts becoming text. We follow the doomed road trip not through close-ups on its vacationers, but distantly, through car windshields, motel windows, and from the side of the road. They are searching for a utopia they’re unsure actually exists, more a fountain of truth than a fountain of youth, and we watch them from afar until their very final moments, because to watch from afar is to be as the boys are: to observe the world through a haze of uncertainty and denial, being unable or unwilling to look too closely around them.
As the boys and Luisa make their way to the beach, they pass through a history none of them can fully comprehend. Our narrator stops their story to explain a car crash here, a dead pedestrian there; Tenoch ponders the life of his childhood nanny as they pass her visibly ramshackle hometown: the boys brag to Luisa about their (nonexistent) sexual prowess as Cuaron’s camera drifts past a brutal drug bust out the window. But like Luisa in the phone booth, the boys are oblivious to the film’s simmering political undertones, ignorant of the fact that the country they drive through is about to collapse. Early in the film, the president attends the wedding at which the boys meet Luisa. As they attempt to flirt, cigarettes and beer unable to hide how young and inexperienced they are, our narrator explains what the guest of honor will do after he leaves: he will hurry home, deny that his government was involved in a recent massacre of innocent civilians, than flee the country for a globalization conference. This hangs uneasy over the audience like an itch, but the boys, and Luisa for that matter, neither notice nor care. The subtext of their country is as damning and terrifying to deal with as their own worries.
So back to that phone booth. Luisa is crying. The boys are laughing. A choice: stay ignorant, or wake up? Keep laughing, dancing, smiling, refusing to look in dark corners—or face their split country. Face the forces underneath every action that simmer beyond their control. Drive through a divided Mexico and make yourself do the impossibly painful—look out the window.
It’s not just the boy’s fate on Luisa’s shoulders. It’s the fate of the country, too.
And that’s what makes Y Tu Mama Tambien so powerful in retrospect: the end of the day, it can market itself as a three-hander all it wants, but it is Luisa’s film. Going into this movie with nothing but the summary, as I did, you may wonder—what kind of late-twenties woman would voluntarily go on a thinly-veiled sex road trip with a couple of teenage boys, too insecure and stupid and scared to even look too deeply at their own relationship? But what could have been a one-note sex fantasy of a character becomes, in Cuaron and Verdu’s capable hands, the ultimate hero of a story that didn’t even notice her for its first twenty minutes. We open on the boys, but they are not our protagonists, because it’s Luisa who makes all the decisions. She carries a heavier burden on her shoulders than even the audience knows until the final frames, but unlike the boys, with this road trip she is not running away. She breaks the cycle; she stops the denial.
The decision can’t be undone, and it is painful, and it will hurt. But anything is preferable to this cycle of blissful ignorance, because childhood, like good weather, or sex, or nationalism or political stability or summertime, is blissful while you’re in it—but making it last forever only makes the break more brutal.