Berlin Film Festival Review: ‘Gueros’

A black-and-white Mexican debut that shifts the focus from street urchins to relatively privileged middle-class types.

Tenoch Huerta, Sebastian Aguirre, Ilse Salas, Leonardo Ortizgris, Alfonso Charpener.

“To be young and not a revolutionary is a contradiction,” reads a protest banner in “Gueros,” a feisty Mexican indie in which two brothers — one dark-skinned, the other pale — idly fritter away a few days while those around them stage a massive student demonstration. Such politics exist on the periphery of Alonso Ruizpalacios’ playful yet realistically grounded debut, which poses as a road trip (or, for the more generously inclined, a lackadaisical “chase movie”) in which the siblings conceivably discover their place in society while searching for an elusive folk singer. Pic faces modest returns, but foretells a promising career.

By contrast with a more arthouse-friendly strain of Mexican cinema — whose helmers “grab a bunch of beggars and shoot in black-and-white,” as one character here self-reflexively notes — this microbudget offering focuses on relatively privileged middle-class types (which it also shoots in black-and-white, and in the Academy ratio). The slang title refers to light-skinned and/or blond-haired Mexicans, taking ownership of a nickname that perhaps unfairly implies that “gueros” have it easier than their less-Euro-looking compatriots.

Young Tomas (Sebastian Aguirre) might be paler than his parents, but he behaves like a typical enough teen, combating his boredom by lobbing water balloons off the roof of his apartment building. At her wits’ end, his single mother sends Tomas to live with his older brother, Fede, aka Sombra (Tenoch Huerta), down south, hoping that a male role model might shape him up. But Sombra doesn’t exactly have his own life together, living in an unpaid apartment and mooching electricity from the downstairs neighbor. Although the local college students have been boycotting school for the past 163 days, Sombra considers himself “on strike from the strike,” little better than a layabout — and hardly the good example that Tomas needs to get his life on track.

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At first, hanging out in bohemian squalor with his big brother is enough for Tomas — and the audience, too — as Ruizpalacios brings generous good humor to their idiosyncratic living conditions, echoing the wry observational feel of such south-of-the-border pics as “Duck Season” and “Turtle Family,” set mostly in apartments and other decidedly unexotic real-world locations. Damian Garcia’s camerawork remains dynamic despite the relatively tight budget, and the cutting (by editors Yibran Asuad and Ana Garcia) can get flashy at times, though character always takes the fore.

The personalities here feel genuine, as if a group of friends had banded together to make a movie just a few degrees removed from their real lives — a la “Clerks” or “Swingers,” though not nearly as conceptual, plot-wise. These guys don’t have much on their minds beyond the loose goal of tracking down Epigmenio Cruz (Alfonso Charpener), a musician rumored to have once made Bob Dylan weep, though the student strike becomes increasingly hard to ignore, given Sombra’s crush on its charismatic leader, a pirate-radio DJ named Ana (Ilse Salas).

From that opening scene, when Tomas manages to splat a harried mother and her baby stroller with one of his water balloons, there’s little hint of where Ruizpalacios intends to take the audience. Near the end, another kid stands over a bridge, debating whether to drop a cement block on passing traffic. His motives seem equally capricious, yet that seems to be the point: Here is a country of agitated young men, bullied by their peers, feeling as if they don’t fit in, seeking an outlet for their aggression.

Seen in the context of several rowdy, seemingly unstaged student gatherings, these vignettes acquire a certain potency. “Gueros” isn’t making anything so grand as a statement. In fact, by all indications, Ruizpalacios still seems to be finding his voice, and yet this modest little movie does seem to have its finger on the pulse.

Berlin Film Festival Review: 'Gueros'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 7, 2014. Running time: 108 MIN.

Production: (Mexico) A Catatonia Cine, Imcine/Conaculta, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico production. Produced by Ramiro Ruiz.

Crew: Directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios. Screenplay, Ruizpalacios, Gibran Portela. Camera (B&W, HD), Damian Garcia; editors, Yibran Asuad, Ana Garcia; music, Tomas Barreiro; production designer, Sandra Cabriada; costume designer, Ingrid Sac; sound, Zulu, Isabel Munoz, Kyoshi Osawa, Gabriel Reyna; visual effects, Daniel Cosio; assistant director, Miguel Necoechea; associate producers, Jose Felipe Coria Coral, Gael Garcia Bernal.

With: Tenoch Huerta, Sebastian Aguirre, Ilse Salas, Leonardo Ortizgris, Alfonso Charpener.

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