Molding the Details
To be a writer, Jano Cortés tells his 17-year-old cousin Tenoch (Diego Luna), “You need life experiences, and honestly, what do you know about life?” Little does Jano know that soon, his lovely wife Luisa (Maribel Verdú) will be driving in a borrowed car with Tenoch and his best friend Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) to a beach named Heaven’s Mouth. Five days later, all three will be changed people, bursting with experiences that point in one direction: the secret to living a full and beautiful life is telling beautiful stories. And the secret to telling beautiful stories is enriching them not with truth, but with the rosy glow of subjective memory.
There is such joy and liveliness in Y Tu Mamá También that it may be easy to overlook the details that make it so smart. To start—one of the trio’s first experiences on their journey involves their witnessing an accident on expressway: a bricklayer has been hit by a truck and a voiceover tells us that it will be four days before the corpse is claimed. The camera pans from Julio and Tenoch, to look through the back window, at the bricklayer’s body.
The camera’s lingering on that image before we cut to the next scene exemplifies the film’s attention to fleeting moments and fragile lives. For all Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa’s attempts to live—loudly—in the present, they can never really escape the oppressions of the past or the future (or constant reminders of horrific poverty in their own backyards). And for all their respective desires to be the main character in some grand, worldly history, their narratives are as illusory as the dozens of one-phrase stories they pass on their journey: the Volkswagen covered in wedding decorations, the Mexican peasants celebrating a holiday, the protesters working for medicine and food in Chiapas.
In Y Tu Mamá También, narrative hierarchy seems virtually nonexistent. The camera that follows Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa feels almost incidental, for while their adventure is given the most screen time, director Alfonso Cuaron could have chosen, for his focus, one of the thousands of other stories, sometimes told in single shots, that give the film its energy and richness. It’s as though Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa’s experiences are only a context for multiple tiny stories; every character, no matter how “small,” is integral to the film’s flow.
For one example, at a party thrown by Tenoch’s wealthy family before thr road trip commences, a maid brings food past the guests and out to the driveway, which is filled with limo drivers and bodyguards. Though they are dressed identically in dark suits, each is set apart by unique gestures or positions. In one brief image, Cuaron tells a tale of class structure in Mexico, without even using dialogue—for the drivers and bodyguards remain individuals even while working in subservient positions; each, in effect, is the protagonist of his own story, beyond the film’s limits.
Such deft, vital storytelling is rare indeed in contemporary cinema, and it’s what makes Y Tu Mamá También so refreshing. It also speaks to Julio and Tenoch’s mantra, “The truth is cool but unattainable.” What they don’t realize until the end of the film is that the truth doesn’t matter; rather, what’s most important is how you mold events into an interesting story. Truth, here, is a subjective function of narrative, produced in the details.
The story—if not truth—molded by the three travelers is terrifically interesting. When the three finally arrive at Heaven’s Mouth, it is the most gorgeous, emptiest beach in all of Mexico. The place is like a dream: unspoiled, pure, and apparently freshly created for the travelers. Cuaron, here, shows us not how the beach appears in the present, but how it will later be remembered in the hazy beauty of retrospect—again, truth depends on the storyteller.
Luisa, who eventually seduces both boys, is almost as romanticized by memory as the beach—Julio and Tenoch and, by extension, the camera, depict her as nothing short of divine. At the same time, Verdú‘s shimmering performance ensures her function not as a metaphor, but as a storyteller on equal footing with her young lovers. She exudes sex appeal, smarts (though Luisa insists she lacks intelligence), and wisdom. As an entirely sympathetic “Mrs. Robinson,” she also is the only character who realizes what’s going on: “What you really want,” she spits after a brutal row between Julio and Tenoch, “is to fuck each other.” In many ways, she’s right: the two shower together, sleep with each others’ girlfriends, even whack off side by side. Fucking is the logical conclusion, but crossing that final boundary means a breakdown of all that’s familiar. That’s why Julio and Tenoch insist on the unreachable truth—because if you could reach it, it would be too scary to bear.
So they avoid fucking each other (for most of the film, at least), avoid recognizing the poverty that extends throughout Mexico, and avoid growing up. At the same time, Y Tu Mamá También‘s expert, terse, virtually flawless voiceover serves as an older and wiser perspective that fills in gaps for the audience. Each scene concludes with a sudden dropout in sound; the voiceover then calmly tells us what’s just happened. When Tenoch confronts Julio about sleeping with his girlfriend, Julio’s assurances are debunked by the voiceover telling us that he “molded the details, trying to create a less painful truth.”
Pain, though, will eventually catch up, as shown by the fact that every happy moment in Y Tu Mamá También has an ominous tinge of sadness, as when Luisa, joyfully swimming in the ocean, instructs a little girl to “float like a corpse.” The camera drifts to a silent underwater shot of the girl’s unmoving body, a reminder that even she risks death every day, simply by living.
Y Tu Mamá También is all about how we shape the details of living, despite and because of this risk. Stories are all that will eventually remain, so Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa make theirs as explosive, musical, and full of life as possible. Despite its anticlimactic, too expository final scene, Y Tu Mamá También is a journey through memory, a celebration of living, and a sobering rumination on fatality, classism, and ignorance. It’s also a glorious love song to cinema’s ability to mold the details, and, in doing so, to tell some truly beautiful stories.