The opening shots of Y Tu Mamá También stem from the mindsets of its two male teenage protagonists. They’re sex scenes, of course, rushed and frantic; defined by jealousy and uncertainty. But the film – part sex-comedy, part coming-of-age story, part road-movie, part reflection on the class inequities of modern Mexico – has broader ambitions than documenting the sex-obsessed exploits of politician’s son Tenoch (Diego Luna) and his middle-class comrade Julio (Gael García Bernal). The film knows these boys well; it understands that they stand on the frontier of adulthood, pairing the impatience and uncertainty of childhood with the self-assurance of young adulthood. It understands that the bond between them runs deeper than a shared love of weed and whacking off, even if neither can truly recognise that themselves.
Throughout Alfonso Cuarón’s exploration of teenage sexuality (and many other things besides), the film’s scope expands beyond the narrow, self-involved worldview of Tenoch and Julio. Periodically, Y Tu Mamá También is interrupted by the calm tones of narrator Daniel Giménez Cacho, an omniscient force whose purpose is not to clarify the events of the film for the audience, but rather to shade in the margins of the setting, whether gazing into the past (as we pass a crucifix painted on the side of the road, we are given the details of the accident, five years ago, that claimed two lives) or the future (a benevolent fisherman’s fate – to be forced from his home and take up work as a janitor, never to fish again – is recounted with heartbreaking detachment). The narrator’s perspective feels influenced by both the quirky interludes of Amelie and Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s writing in Love in the Time of the Cholera, injected with more pathos than either.
The heart of the film resides in the person of Luisa (Maribel Verdú); married to Tenoch’s cousin, she’s a decade older than either of the boys and surprises them both by agreeing to an invitation to the (entirely fictitious) “Heaven’s Mouth” beach. Fleeing her husband’s confessed infidelity and other complications (that remain unclear until the film’s final scene), she provides the impetus for a meandering road trip. Luisa resonates with life in all its messy complexities: she’s vibrant and distraught, fragile and confident, and above all astoundingly sexy. She represents an object of fervent desire for Julio and Tenoch, both of whom treat her as a trophy to be won rather than a person. Luisa indulges and challenges their lustful fascination; in her own way, she treats them as playthings.
Y Tu Mamá También succeeds in most of its ambitions. As a portrait of Mexico, it’s compelling (though I can’t speak to its veracity). As a sex comedy, the former is a resounding success – the film is unashamedly sexy and refreshingly frank in its take on sexuality (it’s difficult to imagine an American film treating sex with such matter-of-factness). The comedy never really landed for me, though; the film is enjoyable, but rarely funny. The full measure of the film’s strength is unveiled in the final scene, which emphasises the misleading nature of the opening scenes. Cuarón’s film is smarter than Julio or Tenoch, and more empathetic, and the closing moments clarify that this is not just a story of sex, or of Mexico, but a story about life and why we live it.