Are we really about to endure the Mexican version of American Pie?
The answer is no. Actually we're in for a huge surprise. Director Cuarón (best known here for a pair of American-made films, the children's gem A Little Princess and a postmodernized version of Great Expectations with Ethan Hawke) is not content to stuff his likable, wisecracking young seekers into their beat-up brown station wagon and point them down the road to lightweight mischief. Instead, he honors the conventions of raw teenage comedy (whacking off, getting drunk, puking in the street, etc.) while slyly suggesting in the boys' coming-of-age traumas something more important and interesting -- the painful coming of age of an entire country.
Cuarón and his co-writer, his brother Carlos Cuarón, are clearly less interested in luring those fiscally crucial mobs of 16- to 28-year-olds into the multiplexes than in exposing what they see as the sins and follies of Mexico -- or at least complacent Mexico as it was before the arrival of Vicente Fox and his promises of economic renewal and social justice. On the surface, Mamá plays hard, as any buddy movie should. Just below the surface lurks a complex political parable about how an immature, corrupt society lies to itself, then finally learns to start telling the truth.
Fresh out of high school and uncertain about the future, working-class Julio and privileged Tenoch have no immediate plans except smoking pot, getting laid and flopping on the beach. When their respective girlfriends, Ana and Cecilia, jet off to Italy for the summer, the friends are left to their comic macho poses and pleasure-seeking. They ignore the occasional corpse at the side of the highway, couldn't care less about the troubles in Chiapas and see intrusive police roadblocks as someone else's problem. Their politics? "Left-wing chicks are hot, dude," Tenoch explains.
The boys' turning point comes at a fancy wedding. The gentry show up with bodyguards, and Tenoch's pompous older cousin Jano shows up with his beautiful Spanish wife, Luisa (Maribel Verdú). When Luisa suffers a personal shock, she calls Tenoch to take him up on his offer to visit a beautiful beach called "Heaven's Mouth." Little matter that Heaven's Mouth doesn't exist (it's part of Tenoch's relentless teen fiction): Julio and Tenoch are so crazy to get this gorgeous older woman into a car with them that they'll tell her anything.
Little do they know. The road trip turns into a social and sexual eye-opener for the exuberant teenagers, and Mama turns for a spell into a junior-varsity take on Jules and Jim, complete with a visually explicit ménage à trois and a sorely strained male friendship. Because of Luisa, it also dawns on the boys that honest human relations are no easy thing: In one drunken night of truth-telling, Julio and Tenoch start to leave boyhood behind, with all the humor and melancholy that implies. Luisa redefines herself. Meanwhile, Cuarón keeps tabs on his crucial subtext: Mexico, too, seems to be finding its feet.
Young Bernal, who played the desperate young dogfighter Octavio in last year's superb Mexican export Amores Perros, offers a luminescent portrait of a confused teenager, but his contagious energy is in every way equaled by Luna's. When they were 12, the two actors worked regularly together in a Mexican soap opera, and 10 years later their rapport is obvious. As the older woman with a broken heart and a secret, Verdú is just right: This is the kind of role that invites extremism, but she restrains herself admirably, and Luisa comes off as the real heroine of the piece -- lovely and ruined and not quite wise.
Y Tu Mamá También broke all kinds of box-office records in Mexico last year, and it's easy to see why. In elevating bawdy teen farce to political metaphor without squeezing the fun out, Alfonso Cuarón has pulled off a nice little miracle.