When you see the first scene of Y Tu Mama Tambien (And Your Mother Too), you might think you have this movie pegged. Two teens are screwing -- noisily, nastily, and clumsily -- below a poster of that cult-movie classic, Harold and Maude. A panting discussion commences: Promise me you won't fuck any Italians, says the boyfriend to the girlfriend. Ah-ha!, you might think. It's a standard formula: possession, jealousy, and a the betrayal of teen love for a horny/funny May-December romance.
But though director Alfonso Cuaron's film has the makings of a raunchy teen comedy à la American Pie -- fueled by the funk of hormones, farts, and pot smoke -- it delivers much more. Y Tu Mama Tambien is only masquerading as a dirty road-trip movie; it's really going for social commentary, for a meditation on youth, dreams, and mortality. Even the sex here is more profound, more real. There's no Merchant-Ivory polite moaning and expertly choreographed caresses to be found, much less charmless Bruckheimeresque sledgehammer action. Instead, there's just some awkward adolescent humping, all tangled shoes and pants and groping paws. And there's the exasperated patience of an older woman.
The older woman in question is Luisa (Maribel Verdu), a cousin by marriage to Tenoch Iturbide (Diego Luna), the wealthy teenage son of a corrupt politician. Tenoch and his best friend, Julio Zapata (Gael Garcia Bernal), meet Luisa at a fancy event where the bodyguards outnumber the guests. She's there, luminous in white, with her lout of a husband. The boys jockey for her attention -- would she like to come to the perfect beach with them? Heaven's Mouth, they call it, with the drunken bravado of boys swiping at the unattainable -- unattainable because she won't say yes, and because the place doesn't exist anyway.
But a few days later, she does say yes. The boys are off like a shot, getting sketchy directions from a friend and grinning at their unbelievable good fortune. Previously glum at the thought of a sexless summer -- their girlfriends have left for Europe -- they're more than ready to leave behind their drugs from "Frisco," and their homoerotic swimming and whacking-off competitions.
So their trip commences, and as the trio gets to know one another, the viewer grows acquainted with the country through which they travel. Luisa is from Spain, as much a tourist in Mexico as many U.S. moviegoers might be. An omnipotent voice-over serves as a guide, narrating both the inner lives of the characters, and the unseen stories behind specific places and encounters. As Tenoch and Julio bitch about getting caught in a traffic jam, we hear about its cause: the death of a bricklayer, who shortened his walk to work by taking the overpass and was run over in the process. At first distracting, the voice-overs become mesmerizing -- think of the narration in Amelie, but with melancholy instead of whimsy -- detailing tragedies and secrets lying beneath a sunny surface. Yes, we are watching a movie about the explosive joy of sex and freedom, but there is something darker and sadder at work, too: the knowledge that ecstasy won't last forever.
The boys are too raw and young to realize this, of course, too inebriated with the feel of Luisa and, eventually, the stink of their own rivalry. Before the trip, Tenoch and Julio lived in a drugged-out oblivion, a happy companionship untroubled by the differences in their status: one rich and one the lower-middle-class son of a single mother. Even their last names reflect this -- Iturbide after a mighty Mexican emperor and Zapata after the revolutionary. The camera spells out these differences at every turn. As the young men crow happily in their car, they cruise past police harassing vendors, roadside crosses marking car accidents. "I wonder why we came," comes from the radio, as they drive through a desperately poor village, "I wonder why."
As for Luisa -- quick-witted, but also filled with a yearning sensuality and pathos --we can't quite make out why she's putting up with the charming yet obnoxious boys, humoring their bumbling attempts at foreplay. Is she fulfilling her thwarted dream of traveling and seeing the world? Or is she re-creating a coltish love from her past? Whatever her motives, she has a kind of desperate watchfulness. When the movie pauses, allowing them all one perfect, idyllic day, she's the one old enough to ask, "Do you ever wish you could live forever?"
Luisa captures the essence of the movie. "You are so lucky to live in Mexico," she says. "Look at it -- it breathes with life." The same is true of this film -- sometimes frustratingly meandering, sometimes electric with happiness and suffering. There are a few perfect days in one's life, the movie seems to say, and then there's the rest of it. But even the rest -- an old granny doing a shimmy, a monkey riding on a car -- has its joy. And as for the dream? Sometimes it's even more perfect for having been lost.