4.5 out of 5 stars

The first thing to say about Y Tu Mamá También is that it isn’t a sex comedy, for all one might if you only turned in for five minutes. It’s certainly funny at times, but the comedy’s always affectionate toward the characters and forgiving of their shortcomings in a way that comparable Hollywood films, like American Pie (1999), are not. And while there’s undeniably a great deal of sex in Alfonso Cuarón’s film—performed, hoped-for, recollected, endlessly discussed and (in one specific case) scrupulously avoided by the two young male leads, despite being an elephant in the room whose enormous proportions are obvious to any viewer—it’s not the real subject.

Sex is only a stand-in for life in Y Tu Mamá También. The two boy’s enthusiastically clumsy efforts, and their half-amused, half-kind tuition by the older woman who accompanies them on their road trip through Mexico, are clearly metaphorical at the same time as being unabashedly physical. The constant presence of death, first incidentally in the background and ultimately right in the foreground, underlines this: at heart Y Tu Mamá También is a wistful film about both the joy of life and its impermanence. Indeed, if Robin Williams hadn’t got there first, the woman Luisa might well have advised her two teen companions to carpe diem. But in manner Y Tu Mamá También has none of the self-importance of Dead Poets Society (1989), and much more of the sheer exuberance of movies like Baby Driver (2017).

The film begins by locating the two boys, Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal), in their normal everyday lives in Mexico City: having sex with their girlfriends, masturbating on the diving boards at the country club when the girlfriends go to Europe, joshing, and getting drunk. Soon, however, they meet Luisa (Maribel Verdú), who’s perhaps a decade older than them, at a social event, and for no real reason other than adolescent silliness, invite her to go with them to a beach they invent on the spur of the moment called “Heaven’s Mouth”. And given what we’ve seen of the boys so far, it’s no surprise that even the name has cheekily sexual overtones!

They don’t expect that Luisa’s husband, Jano (Juan Carlos Remolina), will shortly confess to her that he’s been unfaithful, and prompt her to take them up on the offer. But off the trio go, on a journey that takes them from the city, to a small town, to a remote village, to the back of beyond, stripping away their pretences at the same time as the trappings of civilisation fade. All to a lively soundtrack ranging from Brian Eno and Frank Zappa to Mexican rock.

Their more obvious adventures on the way mostly revolve around sex, alcohol, and bickering, but death also enters the story often and unexpectedly. At first these reminders of the transience of hedonism are supplied by an omniscient voiceover narrator (delays on the road have been caused by the fatal accident of a migrant bricklayer, the escaped pigs who wreck the travellers’ camp will soon be slaughtered), but by the end of the film both death and the beginning of new lives await Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa too.

The voiceover’s not the screenwriting cop-out it might first seem. It turns out to play a fundamental part in the success of Y Tu Mamá También, by setting the characters’ stories in a far more richly realised surrounding world than many movies can manage—occasionally illuminating their internal lives or family backgrounds, but more often providing commentary on the places they pass through or even on apparently unrelated events, like the Mexican president heading off to a conference on globalisation.

This is paralleled by Cuarón’s quiet yet unmissable insertion of background activity into many scenes, alluding to developments in the wider world that the main characters, in their little bubble, hardly notice—there are mounted police amassing in the city, and others with guns beside a field threatening a group of men. Similarly, the film occasionally, without fuss, drifts off to examine something barely connected to the narrative. For example, the kitchen staff at work in the hotel where Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa spend their first night—their labours echoing the long trek earlier made by a middle-aged maid through Tenoch’s house to bring the lazing lad a sandwich. “There are many different Mexicos that exist at the same time and sometimes in the same space, though they don’t really co-exist,” the director has said.

His attention to small contextual details, in a film so seemingly unbothered and artless (long takes with handheld cameras give it the languorous feel of a too-warm summer’s day), lifts it out of the mundane. While we’re watching the characters at particular places and times, we also get the sense these events are taking place in a much broader setting that also includes many other lives. Perhaps the central three don’t all fully understand this yet, but if, as the narrator muses at one point, “they had no idea where they were, or how to get to a nonexistent place”, that is surely something that could be applied to many of us.

Cuarón’s direction is masterfully applied to the main incidents of the film, too. In one perfectly judged scene, a short while after Luisa and Tenoch have first had sex, the three are heading off to their hotel rooms for the night; Julio dutifully goes into the boys’ bedroom, but Tenoch follows Luisa to hers, apparently expecting to be invited in, perhaps even presuming they are now an item. His casual eagerness and her gentle control in sending him back to his own room say as much about their relationship, and their attitudes toward each other, as any dialogue could.

Later in the film, a single shot—perhaps the film’s finest—is similarly economical in expressing the dynamic of the trio so eloquently. They’re at a bar and we see Luisa in a phone cabin, having just hung up on her philandering husband Jano, trying not to cry. In the window of the next cabin is the reflection of the boys, unconcernedly playing pool. Perhaps they care about her a little, but not enough to ask what has so clearly been bothering her throughout the film.

She, however, cares for them in a more mature way, as evidenced by a beautifully handled shot toward the end.

One evening the three get into a long, rambly, raucous conversation at a bar, fuelled by alcohol and laughter and the increasingly implausible claims of sexual conquests made by Julio and Tenoch (from which comes the film’s title, translating as “and your mother too”). Finally, the inevitable threesome begins…. and equally inevitably, Julio and Tenoch’s lips draw closer… and then Luisa disappears from the frame, leaving the two boys kissing. It has taken Luisa, earlier in conversation and now via cinematography, to bring the long-obvious homoeroticism to the surface.

(Having said that, Y Tu Mamá También isn’t a “gay movie” in the ordinary sense, as this doesn’t appear to be a moment of self-realisation for the boys. What’s interesting about the scene is the way it introduces same-sex eroticism into lives that are essentially heterosexual, even today something far more transgressive by commercial cinema standards than depicting a gay relationship. And as a bonus, it’s followed the next morning by the best comedic moment in Y Tu Mamá También, as Julio and Tenoch awake naked together and immediately spring apart in embarrassment.)

When we first meet her, Luisa seems like a supporting role to the two boys, but by the time the movie’s over t’s clear she’s their equal, and perhaps even a principal character. She may be much quieter and less swaggering than them, but she’s both the agent of change in their lives, and the one who takes the biggest steps herself. Verdú is terrific in the role, capturing a slightly odd mix of maternality and youthfulness that suggests she is caught between the superficially carefree world of Julio and Tenoch and the more buttoned-up, oppressive one of her husband.

Her slightly acidic chemistry with Tenoch and Julio is good, but she’s perhaps best in her solo scenes. And, as Roger Ebert wrote, “she is the engine that drives every scene she’s in, as she teases, quizzes, analyses and lectures the boys, as if impatient with the task of turning them into beings fit to associate with an adult woman. In a sense she fills the standard role of the sexy older woman, so familiar from countless Hollywood comedies, but her character is so much more than that—wiser, sexier, more complex, happier, sadder.”

Bernal (already a rising Mexican film from 2000’s Amores Perros) and Luna work fabulously well together too, and later became regular collaborators both on-screen as actors and off as producers. Their combination of easy companionship and prickly rivalry hits just the right note, and when at moments deeper tensions emerge, they do so convincingly. The class gap between the relatively wealthy Tenoch and the less affluent Julio is always there in the background, ready to threaten when tempers erupt (“white trash!” “yuppie!”)

There’s subtlety in the way that the Academy Award-nominated screenplay by Cuarón and his brother Carlos presents the boys, too, even if the characters themselves are incapable of it. For instance, after Tenoch sleeps with Luisa, Julio is clearly upset, but not so much that Tenoch has obtained the prize as that Luisa might intrude on their friendship. So Julio claims to Tenoch that he has had sex with Tenoch’s girlfriend. Most writers on the film take this as a literal statement of truth, but it seems equally likely that Julio is making this up: simply trying to get some petty revenge on Tenoch, or attempting to balance Tenoch’s betrayal with one of his own, or both.

The close of the film is interestingly ambiguous in a similar way. Some time after the main narrative events, the two meet for coffee, and in the final line Julio asks for the bill. But does this imply that—perhaps because of his less privileged upbringing—he’s more willing than Tenoch to take responsibility in life.. or could it mean that Tenoch, despite his greater wealth, is still happy to exploit Julio (something Y Tu Mamá También has occasionally hinted at) and let him pay?

Elsewhere in the cast, Andrés Almeida is amusing in a small role as a stoner pal of Julio and Tenoch. Remolina’s Jano, another small part, is suitably unpleasant, self-regarding and possibly fake, while Silverio Palacios as Chuy, a fisherman the trio meet when they finally do reach a beach, also raises smiles. But as so often in Y Tu Mamá También, the voiceover narration reveals clouds gathering in Chuy’s life, too.

Y Tu Mamá También was a significant commercial success and Cuarón, who had returned to Mexico to direct it after making two features in the US, went on to major English-language productions: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Children of Men (2006), and Gravity (2013). Critical reception was largely positive too, with most reviewers identifying how this film’s apparent focus on sex and ribaldry is equally about death and Mexico. (Although those outside the Spanish-speaking world likely missed that much of the dialogue is in Mexico City dialect, presumably adding for domestic audiences even greater symbolic weight to Julio and Tenoch’s increasing distance from the security of their routine existence in the capital.)

A few dissented, however. Mexican film critic Leonardo Garcia Tsao dismissively considered it a “south-of-the-border Beavis & Butthead.” But the point is that, while Julio and Tenoch are undoubtedly crude, the film is not. It treats them as people, not as excuses for smutty giggles, and if they are obsessed with sex… well, young men of that age often are! Cuarón is just presenting them honestly, while making it clear this is not all they are or can be. As much as any incident or theme, it is this respect that Y Tu Mamá También shows toward its characters—even in its most slapstick moments— that makes it such an engaging and human film.

Indeed, as José Arroyo wrote more perceptively in Sight & Sound, “barely ten minutes in, one is already exhilarated by the conviction that one is watching a great movie”—and that exhilaration lasts until the final credits and beyond, tinged as it is by a rueful recognition that nothing, whether it’s youth or friendship or the carefree rootling of a pig, can be relied upon to last forever.

MEXICO | 2001 | 106 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | SPANISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Alfonso Cuarón.
writers: Carlos Cuarón & Alfonso Cuarón.
starring: Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal & Maribel Verdú