Watching Alfonso Cuaro?n’s Y tu mama? tambie?n (2001) is something like how it must have been to read Henry Miller in the thirties—the shock and the exhilaration, and the turn-on. And not just the turn-on of sex but also of watching an artist work without a net, and of feeling yourself alive. Miller contended that Tropic of Cancer was “a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty.” But despite the disrespect for duty and authority and piety sweating out of its every open pore, the book was also an ode—an often tender one—to the joy of living, even the joy to be found in the agony of living. The Miller figure, most often characterized by empty pockets, a grumbling stomach, and a hard-on that won’t quit, is also, as he says, “the happiest man alive.”
Right up until its melancholy coda (whose mood is captured by the casual elegy of Frank Zappa’s “Watermelon in Easter Hay” on the soundtrack), Y tu mama? tambie?n shares this sense of joy—the joy of living rough, of sex, of camaraderie, of youth. It remains one of the rare happy erotic movies. Mexican audiences may have been prepared for a work like this from Cuaro?n, given the popularity of his racy debut, the 1991 comedy So?lo con tu pareja, detailing the adventures of an advertising lothario. But between So?lo and Y tu mama?, Cuaro?n had spent a decade in Hollywood, during which he produced two sumptuous literary adaptations, of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s novel A Little Princess and Charles Dickens’s bildungsroman Great Expectations. So a sexually explicit road comedy was the last thing American audiences expected of him. Still, perhaps they needn’t have been surprised. Both A Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998) are distinguished by their rich sensuality.
A Little Princess hums with its young heroine’s belief in the power of her imagination, the very thing that saves her from cruel treatment during her sojourn in a girls’ school. In one scene, she and the young maid she has befriended awake to discover that, while they slept, a rich man’s servant took pity on them and transformed their shabby attic bedroom into a palace of silks and canopies, with plush robes and slippers and mouthwatering food awaiting them. It’s the moment of deliverance that occurs in all great fairy tales turned into a catalog of pleasures, the two girls like miniature rajas basking in their sudden good fortune. And in Great Expectations, which turns Dickens’s Pip into an aspiring artist in nineties Manhattan, Cuaro?n transformed the hero’s ardor for the unattainable Estella into verdant eroticism. The film critic Robin Wood—one of the few to get the movie—identified it as one of those rare book adaptations that is so faithful to the spirit of its source and yet “so free that, after a while, one ceases to think of Dickens at all.”
Freedom, which in terms of moviemaking can be said to be the filmmaker’s refusal to fear risk, is the key to Y tu mama? tambie?n. Cowritten by Cuaro?n and his brother Carlos, and shot by Cuaro?n’s steady cinematographer, the great Emmanuel Lubezki, the movie puts us in the horny, sweaty skin of its two adolescent protagonists, Tenoch (Diego Luna), the privileged son of the country’s rich, corrupt secretary of state, and his buddy Julio (Gael Garci?a Bernal), the lower-middle-class son of a single mother. Free for the summer while their girlfriends are off in Italy, Tenoch and Julio are bursting out of their jeans.
Cuaro?n has said that the movie is “about two teenage boys finding their identity as adults, and . . . also about the search for identity of a country going through its teenage years and trying to find itself as an adult nation.” Given the casual glimpses Cuaro?n provides of gun-toting soldiers routinely stopping vehicles along country roads, the boys’ teenage years look like a lot more fun than their nation’s. Without becoming preachy, these brief shots are a way for Cuaro?n to show that he does not share the callowness of his heroes, and a reminder that they are afforded some buffers from the countrymen not as well off as either of them. The state of the nation is not in their heads. Cuaro?n doesn’t scold them for that, he just presents it as fact. He shows us the boys getting high, whacking off, goofing off; they’re primal forces who haven’t surrendered to the respectability or casual corruption that surrounds them.
Cuaro?n realizes that Tenoch and Julio will have to grow up and make compromises, and he’s aware of their self-centeredness and small hypocrisies. But he loves them for their direct, uncomplicated ability to feel pleasure. The hormone-fueled esprit that drives them is its own love song to the possibilities of life. They may be juvenile—grossing each other out by farting in the car, or lying on adjoining diving boards while they masturbate, each calling out encouragement to the other (invoking Salma Hayek’s name prompts furious tugging and cries of “Ahhhh, Salmita!”)—but they’re not jaded or cynical or burned-out. Hovering on the verge of obnoxiousness, they are basically grubby innocents. Like dirty-minded virgins, they’re excited by each joint, every beer, every chance for sex, as if it were their first time. On middle-aged men, the funk of cigarettes and beer and sweat and sex smells of failure; on Tenoch and Julio, it’s the perfume of youth.
Befitting a tale of discovery, Y tu mama? tambie?n is a road movie, whose journey gets its start at a lavish wedding thrown by Tenoch’s parents. There Tenoch and Julio meet Luisa (Maribel Verdu?), Tenoch’s Spanish cousin by marriage, regaling her with tales of a paradisiacal, off-the-beaten-track beach called La Boca del Cielo (Heaven’s Mouth) and telling her she should join them on their trip to find it. A few days later, she calls them to ask if the offer is still open, and together they set off. There’s just one hitch: as far as the boys know, the place doesn’t exist.
Traveling through the Mexican countryside in Julio’s sister’s car, the three begin an exploratory dance. Luisa asks them about their girlfriends, about what brings them pleasure, about their various exploits, and the two teenagers, eager to impress this “older woman”—who’s only got about ten years on them—brag and laugh with the overconfident boisterousness of baby seducers. It’s a good front; these kids are as scared as they are turned on. Inevitably, it’s Luisa who ends up seducing both of them. That may sound like the setup for an adolescent male fantasy (and there’s nothing inherently wrong with a filmmaker presenting a character’s sex fantasies on-screen), but Cuaro?n is after something more complex.
It’s the boys—sweet but more than a little clueless—who are always the butt of the joke, while Luisa’s pain and turmoil are taken very seriously. Cuaro?n isn’t baffled by Luisa the way his heroes are. One look at her husband, the puffed-up novelist Jano (Juan Carlos Remolina), is enough to tell you hers is not a happy union. Jano is the sort of needy mama’s boy who calls Luisa up after cheating on her and begs teary, drunken forgiveness. Cuaro?n, however, is lovingly attentive to this woman.
You understand why Luisa takes the chance to head off with Tenoch and Julio. Her attitude toward them is a sort of incredulous delight. She knows they’ve got rockets in their pockets, and it makes her laugh—both at them and at herself for palling around with them. And though Cuaro?n shares the boys’ happy, greedy voracity, it’s through Luisa’s eyes that we come to see them—annoying and endearing at the same time.
The movie gets great mileage out of the joke that boys at the height of their sexual potency are often woodpeckers in the sack. Neither Tenoch nor Julio lasts very long in his couplings with Luisa, and though she treats them tenderly, we can see the bemused frustration on her face. Cuaro?n understands that there’s more at stake for her than there is for the boys, that her grab for happiness contains much more desperation than the boys’ innocent hedonism (even if he waits to reveal all that’s at stake for her). They are in awe of Luisa, and Cuaro?n knows that she’s the powerful one in the trio. When their misbehavior gets to be too much, she lays down the law, and like obedient puppies content to frisk at her feet, they comply.
Finally, though, what these three share is more important than what divides them. Some of the happiest moments in the movie are while they drive through the countryside, fast-food wrappers littering the car, Luisa’s feet up on the dashboard, intoxicated by the sun and the freedom of being on the move. Cuaro?n is generous enough to allow their seaside Eden to actually exist. The lovely section where they reach it and camp with a fisherman and his family has the feel of an extended idyll, an elemental existence that drowns out the static in their heads and makes them all purr with contentment. And it all pays off in the climax, a go-for-broke moment that’s simultaneously a great, daring joke, the deepest affirmation of the movie’s faith in the glories of lust, and the most naked example of the bond of tenderness that exists between Tenoch and Julio.
The fearlessness of Y tu mama? tambie?n isn’t Cuaro?n’s alone. It also exists in the offhand bravery of the three lead performances. For the movie to work, the actors have to be as free and unembarrassed on-screen as their characters are, and there isn’t a false note among them. It would have been easy for Luna and Bernal to caricature Tenoch and Julio (or to make the frequent mistake of youth movies and hold them up as avatars of wisdom). They’re good enough to allow us to be exasperated with them without once risking our affection. And Maribel Verdu? is extraordinary, balancing pleasure and sadness in a way that suggests the depths Luisa keeps hidden inside herself. When her wide, beautiful mouth opens in a radiant smile, she becomes the movie’s carnal Madonna, a patron saint of sexual generosity.
Following Y tu mama? tambie?n’s idyllic climax, it seems fitting that the films Cuaro?n has made since are steeped in fantasy and adventure, both yielding to it (his contribution to the Harry Potter series, 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and resisting it (the devastating dystopia of 2006’s Children of Men). Cuaro?n’s latest film as I write this, Gravity (2013), may herald a return to the terra firma in which Y tu mama? is so firmly grounded. This may seem a strange thing to say about a 3D tale of survival in space, which holds the viewer with the terror and awe of classical tragedy, dumbstruck in the face of the cosmic scale of creation itself. But Gravity rewrites the physical journey of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, ending, instead of beginning, with an earth creature learning to walk upright, and thus affirming a faith in humanity as the vehicle of evolution that the woozy metaphysics of Kubrick’s techno-evangelism rejected.
Y tu mama? tambie?n leaves open whether the boys’ memory of their adventure with Luisa will be one they cherish or one that, in years to come, will haunt them as a symbol of their lost freedom. But even that uncertainty can’t dispel the liberating joy in Cuaro?n’s embrace of pleasure, in his dispensing with guilt. A movie about sexual freedom is not usually an occasion to talk, as I have, about saints and Madonnas, about putting faith in the erotic. But what’s sacred here lies in what’s profane, and the movie’s raunchy free spirit, its unabashed impulse toward life, is a sort of praise- giving. “In every poem by Matisse,” Miller wrote in Tropic of Cancer, “there is the history of a particle of human flesh which refused the consummation of death.” What’s sacred in Y tu mama? tambie?n comes from that refusal.
Charles Taylor writes about movies for the Yale Review and teaches creative writing and journalism at New York University. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the New York Times, The Nation, Dissent, Salon, The New Yorker, and other publications.