Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)

Y Tu Mama Tambien is being hyped as a “teen movie” for the arthouse crowd.

Having seen it, I can say this without any doubt: while it is about teenagers, it is definitely not for teenagers.

This is serious, and dangerous, artmaking — a story of two adolescent boys whose journey of sexual recklessness becomes a metaphor for political corruption in Mexico. The film contains some extremely explicit scenes of their lustful misbehavior. And while I think it goes too far in portraying realistic liaisons, its intensity is well-intended.

Director Alfonso Cuarón wants to tell very ugly truths about Mexico because he clearly loves Mexico. And the target of his anger — the arrogant and selfish upper class — would do well to take notice. Hopefully, young men who come to this film will pay attention as well. In this story of sex-starved teens, naughty boys get their own games turned against them, and they pay the price. And they’re going to start to realize what monsters they’ve become.

The film is a monumental step for Cuarón as a director. He is best known for making one of the finest family films of the last decade — the sorely overlooked A Little Princess. If you see Y Tu Mama Tambien, you won’t believe it’s the same director. This is a movie of harsh realism, more along the lines of Amores Perros than A Little Princess. It has the impact of Pulp Fiction, and might be described as American Pie meets Reservoir Dogs.

Cuarón’s movie introduces us to Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal), two foolish adolescents on the verge of manhood. They’re whole-heartedly fulfilling the cultural stereotype of chauvinistic, manipulative, self-centered Mexican men. I don’t mean to offend anyone — it is an unfortunate stereotype, and I know there are many exceptions. But for Cuarón, it is a clear and ugly fact — the men who run the country are hard-hearted, sexist pigs who don’t play by the rules they force upon everyone else.

Like their neglectful fathers and the hypocritical politicians, Tenoch and Julio see women as commodities. The movie opens with them thrashing about with their girlfriends in “good-bye sex”, before the girls leave for vacation in Italy. Before it’s over, they demand faithfulness from the girls. But as soon as the girls have departed, the boys are off to achieve new sexual conquests. Now we know what these losers are really capable of.

Tenoch and Julio share an off-the-charts testosterone level — all they do is fantasize about sex and make passes at attractive women, married or otherwise. Like typical teenage boys, they still amuse themselves by waving their flatulence at each other and giggling like school kids at naughty words and double entendres. Their friendship is so intimate that a sunny afternoon is all the excuse they need for masturbating together by the pool. Yes… on camera. I warned you — it is a very explicit film.

No adults are watching them. No parents seem to care about them. They may as well be vigilantes.

One day, they invite Luisa, the attractive 28-year-old wife of a writer, to go with them to the beach for some fooling around. She waves them off at first. But when a tragedy rocks her lonely existence, she calls Tenoch and asks if the invitation is still open. Before long, the boys are drooling over her in the car while they whisk her away to Heaven’s Mouth — a beach they have invented merely as an excuse to take her away.

How could she be so foolish? you might ask.

Luisa is numb with pain. Her character reveals much about the boundaries and possibilities available to women in Mexico. She is privileged to be married to a fairly well-respected and wealthy man. But she is lonely, humiliated, and bored. She is an orphan as well, so she lacks support. And there are harsher secrets locked up in her heart. So Luisa plunges headlong into escapist sexual activity with these young boys to drown her woes and to strike back at the world. The boys are bewildered to find someone with a stronger drive for such indulgence. They cannot conceive of her intentions, or her plans.

Luisa (Maribel Verdu) is up to something complicated. For starters, she wants to teach these boys to treat a woman properly, and she knows the only way she can get their attention is to play along with their games. But she also wants them to see just how clumsy, selfish, and dishonest they really are. She’s spent her life being ordered around, used up, and undervalued. She’s going to make them see, in her own self-destructive way, that she has something to teach them.

If you read about this film or hear about it from friends, you will undoubtedly hear more about the sex scenes than anything. But while they are inappropriately graphic, they are not glorified or romanticized. They are realistically awkward and amateurish, even funny. We learn a lot about the characters — their immaturity, self-centeredness, and foolishness — from these scenes. We also learn about Luisa’s loneliness, about the selfishness of the boys, even about class prejudice. So the graphic nature of the scenes is, to some degree, necessary.

But less, in this case, would have been more. Cuarón is being praised as “audacious,” but audacity is not a virtue. I’m of the opinion that it’s inappropriate to require actors to engage in such graphic and intimate depictions. For one thing, it is more likely to jar viewers out of the movie than to draw them in; we end up thinking about actors instead of the illusion. For another, the farther you go in filming sex, the farther you take us from art that engages the imagination, and the more you draw our attention to your own boundary-testing. As I’m of the opinion that sexual intimacy is a sacred thing, I’m grieved by what such “artistic license” demands of the actors, and by how the footage will be exploited.

Some will respond by calling the film “pornographic,” but this oversimplifies a very complicated issue. Tambien is not pornography — it does not exist to encourage lustful responses. In fact, the end result of the film is to bring shame and a healthier perspective to men who objectify and mistreat women. Cuarón would have been wiser if he had shown more restraint, but no, he is not a pornographer. I believe that he means to set us up to understand what these characters suffer for their recklessness and disrespect later. Tenoch and Julio learn the hard way that promiscuity leads to pain, that lawlessness leads to regret and destruction.

Cuarón makes Luisa a vessel through which a nation of abused, neglected, manipulated women are allowed to speak their mind. She uses dangerous and destructive methods, but the point is clear. Denied any meaningful pleasure, she’s turning the one power she’s permitted to her advantage, exploiting young men as an answer to exploitation. Her woundedness and the quickness of the boys to take advantage of it is a picture of political corruption in Mexico… of the callousness of the rich, of their abuse and manipulation of the poor. Like the boys, the ruling class are self-indulgent, hard-hearted, and their mouths are full of false promises. The women, like the poor, are abused, neglected, over-worked, and wounded. The only hope lies in the lower class rising up and rebelling somehow, exposing their abusers for the pigs that they are.

Y Tu Mama Tambien is an aggressively political movie, a heartbroken testament about a generation without role models or devoted fathers. Cuaron’s film depicts arrogance and prejudice in a resonant and powerful way, revealing deep love for his country,  heartbreak over its corruption, and sorrow for broken families everywhere.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.


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