Two decades on from the star-making one-two punch of “Amores Perros” and “Y Tu Mamá También” Gael García Bernal’s sophomore directorial film “Chicuarotes” exists very much in the shadow of those two modern Mexican classics. And while measuring his well-intentioned, patchily engaging and largely well-crafted new film against such competition might seem unfair, in truth it’s unavoidable: “Chicuarotes” seems to actively court the comparison, with its rambunctious, street-level story of a volatile teenager flirting with criminality as he tries to bootstrap himself, his girlfriend and his best friend/sidekick/whipping boy out of their hardscrabble circumstances in the slums of Mexico City.
But where Iñarritú and Cuarón’s films also dealt in socially-aware, dramatically dissonant portraits of young Mexicans on the cusp of manhood, they both emitted an infectious, buoyant energy. Here, despite a handful of inspired moments and a rough-hewn but dynamic presentation — due largely to DP Juan Pablo Ramirez’ lively, colorful camerawork — the insurmountable flaws baked in to Augusto Mendoza’s screenplay leave a sour taste after the adrenaline subsides.
The chief issue is around the central character of Cagalera (Benny Emmanuel), a “Chicuarote” (the slang name for residents of this particular working-class hood) who does not quite have the “lovable” part of the “lovable scoundrel” persona down. It’s a red flag raised early when he and his long-suffering, dim-witted best friend Moloteco (Gabriel Carbajal), faces painted, attempt to entertain a busload of indifferent locals with a clown routine, complete with terrible dad jokes and bad puns (cleverly translated into similarly punning English in the subtitles.)
None of the passengers are willing to pay for the unwanted amateur comedy show, so Cagalera robs them at gunpoint instead. “We tried to do it nicely!” he yells at them, brandishing the gun he purloined from his abusive stepfather. But they didn’t try terribly hard, and the people they are robbing seem to have as little to spare as they do. While it won’t be the last time Cagalera takes his meek sidekick’s doglike loyalty for granted, Moloteca’s resigned reaction lets us know it’s also hardly the first.
It’s the same self-centered impetuosity, which the film tries to insist is a kind of ramshackle street-hardened pluck, that leads Cagalera to spontaneously kidnap the sweet little son of the local butcher and to hold him for ransom, a caper that ultimately leads to an all-out turf war between neighboring districts. But that’s just one of the strands in an unevenly executed story in which often the side characters and subplots yield the more interesting and insightful scenarios: the wising-up of Cagalera’s pretty hairdresser girlfriend Sugehili (Leidi Gutierrez), his mother (Dolores Heredia) finally dealing with her abusive boyfriend Baturro (Enoc Leano), and a surprisingly touching arc for his gay brother Victor (Pedro Joaquin).
But these threads only contribute to the feeling that García Bernal’s focus is lavished on the least deserving character in his ensemble. Time after time, the people around Cagalera fight, struggle and even die as a direct result of his bad decisions — in one spectacularly ugly scene he even abets in the almost-rape of his supposed girlfriend — while the rather worthless young man skates narrowly through. Are we supposed to be rooting for him?
Perhaps in more experienced hands, Cagalera’s outward swagger, so clearly masking damage and fearfulness inside, would pass for gritty charm. But while Emmanuel commits wholly to the feverish pace of the increasingly antic plot, there is little interiority to the character aside from a widening vicious streak, and it’s hard to find in him the charisma that might account for the devotion that Cagalera inspires.
As the story freewheels zanily through botched robberies, kidnappings and escape plots under a pleasant score from Jacobo Lieberman and Leonardo Heilblum, there are enough touching moments to hint at the simpler and more emotive film that exists somewhere within “Chicuarotes.” But Cagalera is an unreliable anchor to cling to through wave after wave of family melodrama, chase movie, romance, buddy comedy and rite-of-passage tragedy. And when it finally comes to resolve on a semi-redemptive note — he may have lost a lot but he has, finally, gained some wisdom — it’s unfortunate that we’ve long ago stopped caring about such an unappealing character’s redemption. As a film, “Chicuarotes” is intermittently impressive and as a director, García Bernal clearly has real heart — it’s just that here, he puts it in the wrong place.