Y Tu Mamá Tambièn
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 5 April 52002

Truth rules

Jerking off and smoking dope: with their pretty girlfriends on their way to Italy on vacation, high schoolers Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) are looking forward to what appears an uneventful summer. And yet, they're bound to be surprised, as the opening scene of Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá Tambièn suggests: as Tenchon and his girl Ana have awkward sex under a Harold and Maude poster, he makes her promise not to have sex with anyone else, listing all manner of nationalities for her to avoid. Yes, yes, she promises, he is the only one for her. He pledges the same in return. They are, after all, teenagers in lust.

Shortly after the obligatory goodbye scene at the airport (Julio: "I'll miss her, but this is too much!"), the boys find themselves at a fancy society wedding hosted by Techon's wealthy dad. Bored with drinking as much as they can, they meet the beautiful, Spanish-born Luisa (Maribel Verdú), married to Tenoch's pretentious novelist cousin, Jano (Juan Carlos Remolina). The boys are young enough to imagine she finds their drunken antics charming, and they invite her to drive with them a made-up beach they call "Heaven's Mouth." "We can drink coconuts and bring plenty of 40s," offers Julio. Luisa smiles politely. And it looks like that's that.

But, as Y Tu Mamá Tambièn demonstrates again and again, life is full of surprises. Soon after their initial encounter, Luisa agrees to go. Thrilled by their unbelievable good fortune, Tenoch and Julio rush to the supermarket, where they scamper and stumble through the surreally fluorescent-lit aisles in search of chips, beer, and condoms. They have no idea why she's leaving Jano, nor do they much care. But the film ensures that you know some (though not all), of her motivation: distressed by Jano's cheating on her, she abandons her affluent life, in search of something else. As she leaves her apartment, the camera tracks from the comfortable living room to the empty kitchen, walls covered with photos and details of her marriage, to look out the window, onto the sidewalk where children kick a soccer ball and she loads her single bag into Julio's beat-up station wagon.

This isn't to say that Luisa's looking for love or salvation on a road trip with a couple of affable but ignorant kids. She's plainly aware of the limits of her adventure, but there's more at stake for Luisa than immediate gratification. The film too, is full of narrative layers and visual nuances that challenge assumptions you may have about the characters' desires and backgrounds. For one thing, the journey is punctuated by images of what goes on in Mexico: police checks along their route to the sea, poverty-stricken neighborhoods, and community activities -- local religious rituals, roadside shrines and vendors.

And for another thing, a voice-over cuts in frequently, narrating not so much what's happening on screen, but what you don't see and can't know, for example, that a spot of road they drive past is the site of a fatal accident ten years before, involving a chicken truck; or that a joyful fisherman whom they meet during their travels will be reduced to working as a janitor in two years, due to Mexico's increasing class divide/dependence on tourism/collapsing economy. Or even that Luisa has recently taken a women's magazine quiz in her doctor's office, which judged her "afraid to accept her freedom"; Luisa, the voice-over says, "did not agree."

On their surface, these audio flashes forward and back have very little to do with Julio and Tenoch's present "action," that is, their evolving friendship (complicated by their classed differences, Tenoch being rich and Julio coming from a single-parent family), their sexual liaisons with Luisa, their expected "coming of age" stories. But, taken as interventions into the usual linearity of a road-trip movie, these stories become profoundly relevant, some glimpses of truth unavailable to the characters as yet, as well as access to the ways the characters invent and perform themselves; as the narrator observes, "Their stories, though adorned by personal mythologies, were true."

Its interest in the vagaries and shifting colors of truth make Y Tu Mamá Tambièn an unusual film. Rather than take its characters from point A to point B, as do most road movies, it carefully and respectfully observes their present moments, then looks back a little, and even projects forward, to futures they cannot yet imagine. To achieve such narrative fluidity, the film expands and explores the possibilities of the medium per se. Not only does Emmanuel Lubezki's camera create a sense of handheld intimacy and abundant vistas (occasionally at the same time), but as well, Alfonso and Carlos Cuarón's script develops multiple story levels, of memory, yearning, and anticipation, so that your experience remains consciously different from that of the characters. You don't lose yourself in identification, but share experience, inflected by your own story.

At the beginning of their trip to a make-believe beach (that turns out, brilliantly, to exist after all), Julio and Tenoch gleefully instruct Luisa in their club's "Manifesto." Naming themselves the "Charolastras," after romantic Mexican cowboys, they run down a list of rules, like "Get high at least once a day," "Whacking off rules," and "Truth is cool but unattainable." Luisa listens to these rules, but rather than dismissing them outright as adolescent boys' self-inflations, she takes them seriously, eventually asking them, by example as much as anything else, to consider their adherence to a code -- even this code -- as a means to self-definition and analysis, even development.

Though the boys inevitably learn that pursuing immediate desires can lead to unexpected consequences (as well as completely predictable ones), they also come to appreciate this coolness of truth, and especially, they learn to value its elusiveness. At first, they can't comprehend what Luisa means when she advises them, "Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea." But by the end of Y Tu Mamá Tambièn, they -- and you -- come to respect what remains unknown. 

Directed by:
Alfonso Cuarón

Maribel Verdú
Gael García Bernal
Diego Luna
Juan Carlos Remolina

Written by:
Alfonso Cuarón
Carlos Cuarón






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