A middle-class Guadalajara teen with typical adolescent-male summer plans must come to terms with significant life changes in the tender, pitch-perfect coming-of-ager “We Are Mari Pepa.” Expanding his prizewinning short, Mexican helmer Samuel Kishi Leopo makes a confident, appealing feature debut that sensitively and naturalistically depicts his protagonist’s hormones and high spirits, as well as the small, telling details of daily life in his milieu. Fest programmers and Spanish-lingo TV buyers will fall for this modest but gracefully crafted and poignantly performed drama.
With the school year finished, 16-year-old Alex (Alex Gallardo) and classmates Bolter (Arnold Ramirez), Moy (Moises Galindo) and Rafa (Rafael Andrade Munoz) pal around in the park with skateboards, soccer balls and digital cameras. They’ve formed their own punk band, Mari Pepa, and spend time rehearsing their sole original song while struggling to write another. The screenplay (by Leopo and Sofia Gomez Cordova) deftly illustrates this particular time in adolescence, when at one moment, boys may cheerfully pursue friendship, music, girls and porn, and at another appear full of doubts and disappointments.
What makes “We Are Mari Pepa” particularly notable — and lends it considerable charm — is that Leopo and Cordova are equally fine at depicting the boys’ relationships with their families. Alex lives with his elderly, increasingly unwell grandmother (Petra Iniguez Robles); although they rarely talk to one another, their actions, routines and musical choices speak volumes. Meanwhile, at Rafa’s house, dialogue and activity clearly indicate that it’s the women who are calling the shots.
While Alex would like Mari Pepa to participate in an upcoming battle of the bands, his fellow musicians are less keen. Curly-locked bass player Moy is preoccupied with his pretty girlfriend; drummer Rafa’s tart-tongued sister finds him a job serving ice cream; and high-energy frontman Bolter is busy with his extended family. After Alex is mugged and his electric guitar stolen, the competition becomes one more of his plans that fall by the wayside.
At first, the episodic narrative seems to ramble, but the precisely edited structure of rhyme and repetition makes the whole add up to more than the sum of its parts. Even the long, oddly comic scene in which Alex sits through an Herbalife sales-force motivational training session has several unexpected payoffs.
While all the teens limn credible, recognizable characters, the film rests sturdily on the slender shoulders of long-haired, wide-eyed Gallardo. As his loving, slightly senile grandmother, Robles is perfect without uttering a word. The main actors, all non-pros, reprise and expand upon characters introduced in Leopo’s 2010 short “Mari Pepa” and now seem even better suited to their parts.
Octavio Arauz’s lensing is never showy but always spot-on, succinctly capturing the pertinent details of Rebeca del Real Aguilar’s lived-in production design. Pacey cutting provides dynamism, as does the exuberant, energetic score by the helmer’s younger brother Kenji Kishi.