“Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea” – Luisa (Maribel Verdú)
Y Tu Mamá También is probably the single greatest coming-of-age tale in contemporary world cinema, yet also a film that can only be appreciated when one comes of age. The first reason is it contains some of the arousing, stimulating sex scenes ever committed to film, so teens should probably stay away from it despite the promise of titillation. Secondly, the film weaves beautifully between the liberating rush of youth and the painful demise of the possibilities and expectations of adult life, with a grace and honesty that the viewer can recognize. Alfonso Cuarón’s finest film is raw and truthful, a perfect vehicle for his continuous, hand-held camerawork and pointed commentary of Mexican culture. It is also sexy without a hint of sensationalism, devastating without an all-encompassing sadness.
The story follows a ménage a trois, namely two teenage Mexican boys and a Spanish woman around 10 years older heading on a road trip across Mexico to find a secluded beach. The boys are Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal). Their girlfriends have flown off to spend their summer in Europe, so the horny best friends decide to use this free time to get high, get drunk and get off. They entice Luisa (Maribel Verdú) to accompany them on the trip when they meet her at a lavish wedding. The boys want female company because they want to get laid; she wants some time to revel in the glory of the country and forget about her cheating boyfriend.
From the synopsis above, Y Tu Mamá También sounds like an ordinary teen comedy interested in exposing skin; in fact, the film is just as interested in exposing the social, economic and cultural problems in Mexico. Also the film’s co-screenwriter, Cuarón often uses an odd storytelling device: voice-over narration. The narration does not come from a character in the film yet it is one. Narrated by Daniel Giménez Cacho (the protagonist from the director’s debut film, Love in the Time of Hysteria), the voice-over comments about the histories of the characters – their families, painful moments from their youth – and what their futures will hold, much of which is sad news. Y Tu Mamá También is a film focused on the exhilarating rush of being young, confident and free-spirited. As a result, every time the sound cuts out abruptly and the narration begins, Cuarón balances out the ecstasy with the agony, the “petite mort” with feelings of death.
The steamy sex scenes are also unique, as the director betrays any sense of voyeurism, that fetish of viewing sex from a dominantly male perspective. Instead of glorifying the female body, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki does not glamorize a thing. He keeps the camera mostly still. None of the sex scenes have any cuts, or even angles that would frame Luisa in an overly sexualized way, ridding any sense of Y Tu Mamá También‘s being an adolescent fantasy. The prolonged display of the teens’ awkward sexual interactions with Luisa give the female protagonist a passion and power over her less experienced trip buddies. Although the teens boast of their bravado with their girlfriends – the title of the film translates in Spanish to “And your mother too,” a sexually charged insult between the two – Luisa later exposes them as pathetically inept.
Y Tu Mamá También also peers at Mexico’s class structure with pointed precision. Lubezki’s camera is a casual observer, sometimes deserting the main trio to follow small events on the side of the road or to walk alongside maids and butlers doing their everyday duties. In one scene, as the camera focuses on servants at a prestigious wedding ceremony eating the leftover hors d’oeuvres, the narrator discusses the agenda of Mexico’s president – present at that wedding – who will soon fly to a globalization conference. On the road trip, the camera drifts from the energy of the central summer escapade to look at how the rest of the country, poor and crime-ridden, lives.
The set decoration and lighting, meanwhile, portray two lifestyles: the dingy, messy, dimly lit middle-class homes and the brightly lit, elegantly furnished spaces of the rich and powerful. Julio, a middle-class boy, is dating Cecilia (Maria Aura), who lives in a plush home with parents who watch over her with such prying eyes that their early sex scene has to be especially quick, before mom and dad come upstairs to investigate. Tenoch, from a powerful (and politically corrupt) family is dating the middle-class Ana (Ana López Mercado), whose disheveled living space is perfect for their torrid love affair, a startlingly intimate scene that opens the film. Meanwhile, the blue ground that glimmers Luisa’s bare apartment reveals both her loneliness and a desire to bask in the ocean.
Julio and Tenoch’s different socioeconomic backgrounds come into the fore when the two get into a shouting match with each other halfway through the road trip. Although a small part of their relationship, this difference bubbles up at a key breaking point and showcases how fleeting their friendship really is.
It is fitting that the film ends at a beach, a common icon in cinema and literaure to represent freedom. An empty beach was the perfect setting to conclude The 400 Blows, a classic French New Wave film about adolescent liberation and confusion with a spirit Y Tu Mamá También often recalls. The film is ultimately a blissful, brilliant exploration of two different experiences: that of the energetic adolescent crusader, with a sunny expectation of life, and that of the blossoming adult, looking back at her life as she hopes to find a different kind of personal fulfillment, knowing that the naivety of youth will soon fade.