Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien’ Hides Serious Themes Behind Comedic Fluff

Alfonso Cuarón’s highly sexualized Y Tu Mama Tambien is deceptively serious, hiding weighty themes behind comic banter and, yes, plenty of sex.

Y Tu Mama Tambien is a deceptive little movie, a serious film masquerading as a bit of comic fluff, hiding weighty themes behind silly banter and plenty of T&A. Director Alfonso Cuarón would go on to make a string of fine films including Children of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013), but this early effort showcases his ability to effortlessly blend the personal and the political, the comic and the tragic. It’s an outstanding film, featuring flawless and fearless performances from its three leads, and it deserves to be seen by any devotee of the movies. Criterion’s three-disc set is, of course, pristine, containing both a DVD and blu-ray copy; it’s also packed full of extras, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing, as ever, is the story and the telling of it.

That story is straightforward. Julio and Tenoch are a pair of horny teenage boys living in Mexico City, happily boinking their respective girlfriends at every opportunity when they’re not getting stoned with their buddies or driving around town, wisecracking and farting. Typical teenagers, in other words, although their disparity in social class lends an undercurrent of tension that will slowly manifest itself more fully in the movie. Tenoch is a well-heeled member of Mexico’s elite, while Julio, though still comfortable by local standards, is considerably less well off.

When they boys’ two girlfriends leave together for a summer holiday in Europe, Julio and Tenoch are left to look for entertainment in the city, and they find it in an unexpected source: Tenoch’s distant cousin-by-marriage Luisa, a Spanish woman in her twenties who immediately casts a sensual spell over the lads’ libidinous fantasies. Through a convoluted set of circumstances, the trio departs a few days later for distant and possibly mythical beach, driving a rattling car in an impromptu road trip. Along the way, the three crack plenty of jokes, brag about their exploits, and talk a great deal about sex.

What gives the story resonance is the note-perfect performances by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna in the roles of Julio and Tenoch, respectively. The two young men inhabit their roles perfectly, their speech often overlapping each other and their faces — particularly Bernal’s — remarkably fluid and expressive. Maribel Verdu, in the role of Luisa, carries a sensual grace that periodically slips to reveal the sadness beneath, and the actress manages this balancing act without ever seeming melodramatic or phony. With the three primary actors so convincingly inhabiting their roles, the film carries the viewer along even in its early, more farcical stages, while the plot deepens and grows darker later on.

Another feature of the screenplay which raises the film above the level of a simple coming-of-age story is the stentorian narration, which is by turns ironic, grave and mildly annoying. This unnamed narrator peppers the plotline with bits of information that sometimes seem irrelevant, but which accrue, over the course into the movie, into a kind of alternative narrative. Sometimes the narrator touches upon the lives of the nameless poor, sometimes he mentions an instance of political corruption or nepotism; taken together, these verbal snapshots provide a window into Mexico’s larger, less picturesque reality.

As expected, Criterion’s DVD presentation of the movie is outstanding, with a crisp picture, clear sound and an entire second disc of extra features. These features include numerous documentaries about the making of the film, both contemporary with its production (2001) and newly produced for this set. Taken together, these features total roughly 70 minutes. There are also three deleted scenes totaling about three and a half minutes, an interview with Slavoj Žižek concerning the movie’s sociopolitical elements, and the entertainingly silly twelve-minute film You Owe Me One from 2002, directed by Y Tu Mama Tambien co-screenwriter Carlos Cuaron. A 74-page booklet rounds out the extras, with photos, essays and character biographies written while the film was in its pre-production stages.

Some viewers might be discomfited by all the sex in this movie — it starts with a pair of sex scenes, and includes at least three more later on — but such viewers risk missing the point: growing up and attaining maturity includes, but is not limited to, attaining sexual maturity. In any case, if you’re offended by cinematic portrayals of lust, you should probably skip this film. For other viewers, Y Tu Mama Tambien is a powerful movie, a resonant story that is likely to remain with audiences for a long time.

RATING 8 / 10