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The New Classics - Y Tu Mama Tambien

Michael Cusumano here to add a title that is near and dear to my heart to the New Classics pantheon 

Scene: Epilogue
The Narrator in coming-of-age stories most often represents a grown-up version of the protagonist. Think The Sandlot or A Christmas Story, or the quintessential example, The Wonder Years, voices looking back, awash in nostalgia. In Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También not only is the narrator not a character, but the voice is indifferent, even coldly clinical in its omniscience, as likely to note the fate of a passing group of wild pigs as to reveal the deepest secrets of the protagonists.

We get used to the voice as a welcome companion throughout the film. Its flat, objective viewpoint is a welcome respite from the main trio’s frequent emotional upheavals. Little do we realize we are being set up for the emotional gut punch of the film’s epilogue...

The final scene picks up with Julio and Tenoch (Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal) unexpectedly running into each other a year after their road trip with a sexy older woman (Maribel Verdu). Right away the narrator draws blood, explaining that the two agree to grab coffee because “going for a cup of coffee was easier than making excuses to avoid it” a viciously succinct summary that goes against everything with just witnessed, not to mention the iron clad cinematic law that road trips bring characters closer together. We’ve just seen these two conjure Heaven’s Mouth beach out of their wild fabrications and into existence. How could they grow apart so fast?

Still, even if their connection has faded we suspect we know what might rekindle it: Luisa, the catalyst for the journey and the soul of the film. After some small talk, Tenoch drops the news we knew in our heart was coming. Luisa never left that beach, choosing to die there from the terminal cancer she kept hidden during the trip. 

It’s not quite accurate to call this a twist. The film plainly shows Luisa going into a doctor’s office for test results early in the film. It omits the results, but it doesn’t take much to intuit what might motivate her to impetuously hit the road with the two young men who just finished charmlessly drooling over her at a wedding. The film essentially takes Luisa’s side. If she wants to escape her mortality by going on an adventure with these two immature horn-dogs, then it will do its best push this darker, sadder story under the surface. We think back over the story and realize that for all its exhilarating sun-drenched sexuality, death was perpetually creeping in at the edge of the frame, from the roadside funeral procession to Luisa’s story of losing her virginity, which starts with the guys cackling over the dirty parts, and ends with her boyfriend dead from a motorcycle accident at seventeen.

The guys absorb the information and the sound drops out one final time for Cuaron to drop the hammerblow he prepared for us. As the narrator summarizes Luisa’s final weeks at the beach Tenoch gets up to leave. The narrator informs us with horrible finality “They will never meet again”. The sound returns just in time to hear the guys politely agree to see each other around.

The wistful ending is a staple of the coming-of-age movie in everything from American Graffiti to Superbad and Lady Bird. But those balance the bitter with the sweet. The hope that even if things can’t stay the same, they might turn into something new. Even those that indulge in a downer ending like Stand By Me, can’t resist looking back and marveling with weepy reminiscence “I never had any friends like the ones I did when I was twelve.” 

Y Tu Mama’s narrator shuts down all such sentiment with brutal efficiency. In some ways the death of this friendship hits harder than Luisa’s. Her fate is poignant but she went out on her own terms and with full self-awareness. We sensed from the start that this was where her story was headed. There is no such poetry in the death of this friendship. Just the harsh recognition that even relationships that burn with volcanic intensity can be snuffed out with the simple application of distance and time (exacerbated in this case, by a difference in class).

The tragedy of our teenage years is that we acquire wisdom but we don’t recognize it until we are looking back years later. In the film’s final moments, Julio’s faces to the left - into the past - as his now-former best friend exits the frame to the right, into the future and out of his life. Julio’s eyes fill with tears, as he catches a glimpse of that big picture he and Tenoch managed to miss as their libidos dragged them helplessly from moment to moment.


Previously on The New Classics:


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Reader Comments (13)

I'm not a crier at the movies, but this ending made me cry. And just as you said - not because the death of Luisa, but because the end of a friendship that was so organic, so good. This one simple line was one of the worst gut punches a film ever gave me.

I watched this film for the first time when it came out and I was just about the age of the two protagonists, and it hit me very hard. I went back to the cinema to see it again just a few days later, and I told everyone I know they just had to see it (but only few people actually did). It holds a special place in my heart until today, and it always will.

May 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMrW

I maintain that this is Cuarón's masterpiece. He's never topped it though he's certainly become more ambitious since. Great article, Michael.

May 28, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

That is one of the greatest endings in film as it's a film that I'm proud to own a DVD copy of. It introduced me to a new world that is Mexican cinema that isn't about cowboys. It also showed made me realize why some Mexicans hate Team America (the futbol team) and all sorts of stuff. It's my favorite Cuaron film.

The ending did make me cry and I remembered standing in line to go see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and talking with people including some young women who had seen the film on IFC (when they showed interesting movies back then) and they talked about how much they cried towards the end.

May 28, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

A true masterpiece. I think from a cinematic pov, children of men and Roma are slightly better movies but this one has so much soul. Cuaron is a geeeenius

May 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLSS

The final scene still hurts like the first time.

May 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Great piece of writing of one of my all time favorite films.

There is another use of the voice of the narrator along the film which always gives me goosebumps every time I revisited it (and I've seen 'Y tu mamá también' several times)

At one point in the characters' journey to the beach, Tenoch, the wealthy guy played by Diego Luna, looks out of the car window into the Mexican landscape and catches a glimpse of a small village. Insouciantly as usual, the narrator informs us that the village is the birth town of one os Tenoch's nannies and that he decides not to tell anything to his jorney mates.

Some years later, that story was finally told. And in a magnificent and wonderful way, earning worldwide appraise, a Golden Lion and three Academy Awards...

May 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAlmasy77

I can't believe i havent seen this. I love Cuarón's Children of Men, Solo Con Tu Pareja and the direction of Roma. I have homework to do.

May 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCésar Gaytán

Someone still explain to me, why Maribel Verdú doesn't own 4 Oscars already (supporting actress in "Lovers", lead actress in "The Good Star", supporting actress in "Y tu mamá también" and "Pan's Labyrinth"... not just the noms. The wins.

May 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

Wonderful selection and strong writing! Go, Michael!!! :-)

May 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterReynolds

michael, great article. this film is stunning and will only get better and better with age.

May 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

MrW - I saw it around that age too. now I find the older you get the harder that ending hits

Void - it had a similar impact on me. For such a breezy film it reveals a surprising depth of detail on repeat viewings

Nat - Agreed. And thanks!

LSS - I feel similarly.

Almasy77 - I noticed that too. It is now a wonderful little conversation between the two films

Jesus - I was thinking the same thing rewatching the film for this post. I actually had a whole lengthy digression about Verdu and the character of Luisa which I cut (I often have to remind myself that I'm writing a single post and not one of those BFI companion books) In short, I imagine the frequently naked sex bomb actresses don't get the respect unless they play against that persona a la Charlize in Monster. But she is glorious here.. I need to seek out more of her work.

Reynolds - Glad you enjoyed it. I certainly felt the pressure to do this selection justice.

Eric - thanks! You guys are very kind.

May 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

It's not a Critierion release but The Landlord is also coming out. Lee Grant is super excited about it

May 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMarcel

It was really great to read this article and remember one of my all time favorite films, I've only ever bought about 15 DVDs and this is one of them. I was a huge fan of Roma, but this remains my favorite Cuaron film.. Combines two great genres in coming of age and road trip, great acting all around, especially Maribel Verdu, and the film never feels false. Funny and sad in equal measures.

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMike C

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