No matter the context, the first feature from any director is always interesting.
Sometimes their debut manages to be one of their best. Richard Linklater’s Slacker comes to mind as a feature that is one of his most powerful; it is simple, emotionally profound and adventurous in its execution. There is also the debut that falls short of the latter work of a director’s canon. Hard Eight by Paul Thomas Anderson is in no way a bad movie—in fact it is rather good—but it pales in comparison to the cinematic heights that There Will Be Blood achieved.
For Mexico City-based writer/director Alonso Ruiz Palacios, I’m not sure where his debut-feature, Güeros will fall. Regardless, I will still make that dreaded, over-priced ticket purchase for whatever his next one will be, because I enjoyed Gueros, which screened at the Portland International Film Festival presented by NW Film Center.
Güeros has quite the opening sequence. Shot in Black & White with a 4:3 ratio and edited with some playful and inventive visual flair, the film begins with a young (maybe pre-teen) kid named Tomas (played by Sebastián Aguirre) as he ambiguously decides to drop a water balloon off the top of his apartment building. The problem is, the rather sizable water balloon lands onto an unsuspecting mother’s baby in a stroller on the street.
Tomas did not mean for the water balloon to hit the baby, and is instantly mortified and guilt-ridden as soon it does. It never comes across as a malicious decision, but instead, just one of those juvenile thoughts that all youth carry in their heads; for whatever reason, these ideas are just too tempting to NOT give it a try.
Regardless of his relatively naive intention behind it, eventually his mother confronts him and relays the information that Tomas is too much to handle and sends him off to live with his older brother in Mexico City.
That ends up being quite a questionable move by the mother. His brother, Sambos (Tenoch Huerta), is a lazy student whose college is currently undergoing a strike, and in his own words, is “on strike from the strike.” He is in no way an apt substitution for a male-figure in Tomas’ life—yet, here the two estranged brothers find themselves.
Naturally, the days spent between them and a roommate/good friend, Santos (I’m not entirely convinced of this character’s actual importance), are shamelessly aimless. At one point, Sambos questions what the point of going out is when “we’re just going to end up back here”.
What eventually propels the narrative forward is a simple yet compelling premise. An aging, Mexican-Rock musician named Epigmenio (Alfonso Charpener) is dying and this affects the two brothers profoundly. Both of them share a deep penchant towards a cassette tape with Epigmenio’s music that Tomas religiously listens to, not because the music is exceptionally godlike, but because this is is the last artifact the two have of their deceased father, who absolutely adored Epigmenio.
And so begins the three amigos on a roadtrip-esque journey in and around Mexico City, looking to speak to Epigmenio themselves. What exactly they will say if this happens is never really discussed between the three. Perhaps these characters were just looking for an adventure.
In terms of Güeros’ shortcomings, its actively juvenile nature, albeit charming at times, actually worked against it; the frivolousness exhibited by the characters sometimes translated into a lackadaisical-ness and emotional distance for the characters. There were a high amount of plot digressions here that could have theoretically worked, if not for the lack of inherently dramatically interesting elements either between the characters or between our understanding of them to hold it together.
However, in Palacios’ defense here, the common complaint of the film taking the audience into a journey that feels as directionless and as aimless as the characters themselves can be to a certain extent justified. I believe the intention with Güeros was to create a “slice-of-life” film, and in that case, he has supremely achieved here.
Palacios seems more concerned with creating a world within itself, occupied with characters that are both amusing and/or intriguing to be around; a Dazed and Confused or Clerks type feeling where an air-tight and engaging plot takes the backseat in preference for a character-based experience. We are essentially watching a small group of characters bounce from experience to experience and despite sometimes feeling that the characters, as individuals, are a bit underdeveloped, they still feel hyper-genuine in their interactions with both each other and their world, and that’s easier said than done.
Though the film’s plot digressions are largely forgettable, there are two very indelible moments/developments here. First off, there’s an important plot development when the three travelers come across Ana (Ilse Salas), a young, Radio-DJ, who is an important leader in whatever this massive, college campus strike is about (either the movie doesn’t explicitly say, or I simply did not retain it). She is also Sombras’ object of longing affection. By the time Ana comes into the picture, the film makes an almost unconfident narrative tradeoff and teeter totters between who the movie is really about, Sombras or the younger brother Tomas, but nonetheless, she adds a romantic dynamic that felt much needed. The second moment is the scene where the three actually do meet with Epigmenio, the dying musical genius. I will not spoil it, but it is a very strange, funny, weirdly poignant scene that is anticlimactic in the best way possible and serves as a very key moment. I would honestly watch this movie again just for that scene alone because I think it is perfection on all levels of film-making.
The movie eventually comes full circle in a clever way, and by the time it does, the audience realizes where the movie wanted to go all along. It is a movie attempting to express the state of being a “youth” and all the aggression, energy, naivety, and carelessness that comes with it. This expression is perfectly epitomized in the last moments of Güeros, and though this is another scene I will not spoil because my verbal reiteration would not do it justice. Just know that here it is clear that Palacios wanted to quite literally “take a picture” of being young, and the film became a beautiful one in that last scene.
Mr. Palacios has crafted a promising debut and I’m looking forward to his next work. Gueros is an expressive and sweet film that transcends its imperfections with moments that are genuinely moving.