Papi Chulo is a frustrating movie. The film, from director John Butler, had its world premiere at TIFF 2018, and it’s clear that it wants to be an uplifting story about friendship in America that crosses language barriers and walks of life. The problem is, by centering the experience of a wealthy white gay man, it’s simultaneously doing something pretty great for LGBT representation, and selling its Latino characters short.
The two would-be friends in this Unlikely Friendship movie are Sean (Matt Bomer), a white, newly single, painfully lonely TV weatherman, and Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño), the Latino immigrant he hires to help paint his home. Sean is gay, but the movie isn’t about that — in fact, it’s the rare example of a film about a gay man that treats homosexuality as a normal, non-crisis situation, and proceeds from the assumption that everyone’s all right with it. In fact, the film’s charming, honest, low-key approach to its LGBT characters is the main thing it has to recommend it. We’re invited to empathize with Sean as a human being having experiences that any one of us could relate to, and we’re asked to see him as an individual rather than an ambassador for the gay community. All of that’s to the good.
What’s less good is that Ernesto doesn’t get the same well-rounded, humanizing treatment. Instead, he exists to be the object of Sean’s obsession — something he desperately clings to in his loneliness while Ernesto stoically (and hilariously, we are meant to believe) tolerates his clinging as a strange, eccentric thing that white people do.
The problem is that, from Ernesto’s perspective, this friendship could be the basis of a horror movie.
We never learn Ernesto’s immigration status — and the film largely sidesteps the current immigration crisis in America, aside from a one-line joke where Sean understates, “I’m sorry about that” — but we know that he’s afraid of immigration officials, and he’s desperate enough for work that he stands outside the hardware store looking for any job that pays cash. In fact, their first meeting happens when Sean casually picks Ernesto out from a line of prospective laborers, as if he’s just another thing to buy at the store.
The way the laborers stand on the side of the street — the way they call out to passing cars and negotiate their prices at the window — has an undertone of prostitution, and Ernesto’s wife (Elena Campbell-Martinez) at one point jokes that his relationship with Sean sounds like the start of Pretty Woman. The film breezes past it, but it’s clear that there’s a very large power imbalance in this relationship.
After Ernesto accepts a contract to paint for $200 a day, Sean quickly (and unilaterally) changes the agreement to instead include a series of hang-outs that feel like dates (the bittersweet joke at the center of the film being that Sean pays Ernesto to be his friend because Ernesto reminds him of his former partner). Sean drives Ernesto to mystery locations where they row a two-person boat, or hike through the wilderness, or attend an upscale party with his friends. He allows the people they encounter to think that they’re dating, and starts asking Ernesto personal questions that he doesn’t want to answer. When Ernesto eventually rejects his sexual advances and tries to avoid him, Sean starts hunting him through the city, showing his picture to every Latino-looking stranger near Ernesto’s neighborhood and asking if they know where he is.
Papi Chulo presents this as if it’s a story about a broken, relatively harmless white man who makes a fool of himself but is eventually rewarded for his stalking behavior with a friendship from his “victim”, if you will. We’re meant to believe that, because Ernesto isn’t homophobic, he also isn’t frightened by the stranger who takes advantage of his desperate need for cash and then tries to follow him home. We’re meant to believe that, because Sean needs a friend so badly, Ernesto owes it to him, somehow, to become that friend.
It’s a trope we’ve seen before in movies —Tate Taylor’s The Help (2011) being a prominent example — where, once a white person decides to make friends with a person of color, the POC can’t say no. The white person’s friendship is seen almost as an act of charity — a profound public demonstration of Not Being Racist that there is no way to decline.
Just like Sean, Papi Chulo’s heart is clearly in the right place but, just like Sean, it has very little regard for Ernesto’s feelings and needs. That makes it, at once, a very good movie about Sean — with a solid performance from Bomer and some careful writing that illuminates his situation and the downward spiral he’s in at just the right pace — and a disappointing movie about Ernesto.