The fourth feature by Alfonso Cuaron, a return to Mexican cinema after directing “The Little Princess” and “Great Expectations,” is a slight road movie/teen comedy about two young buddies who go on a revelatory trip to the seaside with an older woman. Pic broke the all-time record for a Mexican production on its home turf, grossing $2.2 million in its first week on 250 screens despite the equivalent of an R rating. There is potential in foreign markets due to Cuaron’s name and sexy content, although the film’s very Mexican sense of humor and slang probably won’t travel well. IFC Films has acquired north-of-the-border rights.
Written by the director and his brother Carlos, script is hampered by a predictable premise. Seventeen-year-old rich kid Tenoch (Diego Luna) and his middle-class chum Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) are at loss when their girlfriends leave for a summer vacation in Europe. At a posh wedding, they meet Luisa (Maribel Verdu), an attractive Spanish woman who’s married to a pretentious cousin of Tenoch’s; they jokingly flirt with her, making up a story about an imminent drive to a wonderful, secret — and also fictitious — beach called Boca del Cielo (Heaven’s Mouth). Days later, a distraught Luisa phones the boys and asks to join their expedition.
Borrowing Julio’s sister’s station wagon, the trio leaves Mexico City supposedly on their way to the invented beach. At a cheap hotel, Luisa asks Tenoch to make love to her as he comes out of a shower. Julio catches a glimpse of the brief erotic session and, overcome by jealousy, confesses to Tenoch that he had a one-night stand with his girlfriend.
Furious, Tenoch seeks retaliation farther down the road while Luisa and Julio are getting it on in the car. Just as things get seriously tense between the two pals, they arrive by chance at a picturesque deserted beach.
The film’s biggest limitation is its oversexed, underdeveloped male duo. Playing like a south-of-the-border version of Beavis and Butt-head, the teenagers have but one thought in their heads: carnal satisfaction at all costs. It thus follows that the mature woman is a sexist fantasy straight out of Penthouse and that the crude and monotonous dialogue seems expressly designed to cater to teenage auds. Nonetheless, pic does not have a laissez-faire attitude about sex: A contrived plot twist at the end casts a moralistic, guilt-ridden shroud over the characters’ escapades, stifling any sense of liberation.
For this outing, Cuaron has replaced his usual lush visual style with a straightforward, no-frills approach. Shot in sequence, pic captures the immediacy of a spontaneous road trip. The best moments occur when Emmanuel Lubezki’s restless camera leaves the protagonists to focus on Mexican realities that have no bearing on the privileged lifestyles of the two youngsters. Those scenes and an ironic third person narration suggest a critical view of their shenanigans that is never fully realized.
Making the most of an underwritten role in her Mexican debut, Spanish thesp Verdu delivers the strongest performance as a vulnerable woman driven by a hidden urgency. Pop songs on the soundtrack are also a plus, striving more for mood than market value. (A curious coincidence is the use of Brian Eno’s “By the River,” an obscure 1977 track that is prominently featured in Nanni Moretti’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner “The Son’s Room.”)