Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001) – Some directors have two first films: one that functions as their proper debut and another that defines what they’ll be as a filmmaker. For Alfonso Cuaron, Y Tu Mama Tabien is that second first film. He’d made three features before then (Solo Con Tu Pareja, A Little Princess, and Great Expectations), all of which were showpieces that looked gorgeous and felt interesting, but were primarily exorcizes in technique and effect. Cuaron was a master craftsman from the second he was allowed to make movies, but it was only after Y Tu Mama Tambien that he became filmmaker who used his style to serve substance.
Of course, on paper it didn’t sound that way. Cuaron’s passion project was a raunchy teen sex comedy about two randy boys on a road trip with an experienced older woman. Yet around the edges and in the nuances emerged a movie that was more than its logline. From there, he went on to reinvent the Harry Potter franchise into something that could sustain its cast and fans past puberty, and then delivered two of the most ambitious and personal blockbusters of the last ten years: Children Of Men and Gravity. All three movies evolved from the long-take shooting style and personal genre warping founded in Y Tu Mama Tambien and despite the added spectacle of his more recent efforts and success none of his follow-ups topped this one.
The film stars a teenage Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna as a pair of best friends and horndogs in Mexico whose girlfriends are out of the country for the summer, leaving them with too much time and too many hormones on their hands. There’s a class divide between them as well as a steady supply of alcohol and drugs to fuel bickering, yet they get along well until the beautiful Maribel Verdu comes along. The teens meet her at a wedding and drunkenly invite her on a beach road trip assuming that it will never happen. However, tragedy strikes in her life at just the right time, so the trio hit the road for a beach that may or may not exist.
Along the way a bond is formed that quickly turns sexual and inevitably leads to a volatile cocktail of tensions, emotions, jealousy, hissy fits and life lessons. Sounds like Porky’s 4: Mexican Road Trippin’, but it’s so much more. Around the edges, Cuaron paints a pointed and rounded portrait of contemporary Mexico. The class barrier between the characters is central and in the background of every shot is a world of protests, death, weddings, beggers, happiness, and pain. It’s a hilarious romp laced with wise social commentary and observation above and beyond the usual expectations of this genre. Best of all, somehow it works.
Much of the success comes down to the actors, with Bernal and Luna coming of age on screen from talented kids into brilliant actors and Verdu transforming what easily could have been an idealized male fantasy into a genuinely pained soul. The trio is so committed to their roles and naturalistic that not a second feels manufactured. The script that Cuaron wrote with his brother Carlos unfolds with the jagged rhythms of life and the leads make it their own to such an extent that it’s easy to forget the film is structured at all until Cuaron draws attention to it. Heavily influenced by the French New Wave, Cuaron uses voiceover to reveal inner truths the characters would never dare express and draw parallels between his story and life in Mexico. It sounds pretentious and yet, it’s not. The technique makes subtext text without ever forcing the point. Then there’s the amazing cinematography by Cuaron’s longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki. Fitting in with the realist style of the film, Lubezki shoots in improvisatory handheld cameras, yet stages each scene in a long flowing takes that creates a dance between the background details and the characters. Added together, the collage of talents and techniques feels like the teen sex comedy that Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard might have made together had the genre existed for them to deconstruct in the 60s. In other words, there’s no other movie quite like it (even in Cuaron’s catalogue) and it’s likely that there never will be again.
Considered a contemporary classic pretty much from the second it first screened, Y Tu Mama Tambien has been rumored for a Criterion Collection release for almost decade. Whatever the cause of the delays, the wait was clearly worth it. The film looks absolutely astounding on Blu-ray. Lubezki’s camera might shake, but his sense of composition and lighting in Y Tu Mama Tambien are as impeccable as in any of his blockbusters (which has never been more apparent than it is on this Blu-Ray). Colors are rich, dirty details pop, depth is limitless, and the Mexican sunlight glows off the screen.
It’s a beautiful transfer, and the special feature section is also suitably strong. First up, with the exception of one underwhelming audio commentary track, all of the features from previous DVDs have been included and cleaned up (trailers, deleted scenes, and a pair of rambunctious documentaries shot on set). New to this disc comes a nine minute interview with philosopher Slavoj Zizek exploring the political subtext of the film, a fantastic 42-minute new documentary featuring nostalgic interviews with all the major players (revealing, amongst other things, Cuaron’s impish and manipulative directing techniques like creating feuds amongst his leads off set that bolstered their performances), and a bloated booklet featuring the long background essays that the Cuaron brothers wrote about every character (including the car, for some reason.
Criterion’s Y Tu Mama Tambien Blu-ray is absolutely everything that a fan of the film could want, capturing the beauty of the film as well as the motivations and depth of talent involved. It would be nice if all Blu-rays could be like this, but then it would also be nice if all movies were like Y Tu Mama Tambien and neither of those things is happening any time soon. (Phil Brown)