Watching a filmmaker assemble an identity can be a trial but not when the result are as promising as Güeros. This Mexican film directed and co-written by Alonso Ruizpalacios, shot in black and white as if to capture the smoggy haze of the capital and showcasing every camera trick made fashionable by the French nouvelle vague, sometimes dawdles but at no point does it betray uncertainty on the part of its maker. Ruizpalacios’ experiments and aspect ratio are apposite to this story about the two brothers and roommate who get mixed up in the student demonstrations of 1999. Wry and delighted with the possibilities of film, Güeros is a promising debut.
Often directors abjure color to signal their seriousness of intent. Ruizpalacios disavows this notion. The movie opens with an abused wife and her child fleeing her husband. Then a water balloon falls on them — talk about irreverence. The perpetrator is Tomas (Sebastian Aguirre), a puckish brat whose own mother is washing her hands of. Sending him to live with older brother Sombra (Tenoch Huerta) in Mexico City is her way of doing it, but I wonder if she’s gotten a look at the hovel in which Sombra and roommate Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) live, an apartment so disgusting and basic that the teens steal the electricity from the apartment below to watch their horrible TV (the telenovelas air the kind of melodramatic situations that Tomas’ water balloons are made for). Bad food and peeling dead skin from their bare feet consume the rest of their time. Meanwhile a strike is tearing apart Sombra’s Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, for a while an irritant to him, about people and ideas he wants no part. “He’s striking the strike,” a character says. Of greater importance to the trio’s is the health of folk singer Epigmenio Cruz, whose music, Tomas learns, “once made Bob Dylan cry.” Visiting him in the hospital gives them purpose. Aware that what made Bob Dylan cry might make the audience cry in another way, Ruizpalacios focuses on how Cruz works his spell on the young men. He captures them listening through oversized headphones, Sombra in the center, comrades on either end ears pressed against them.
“Guero” is Mexican slang to denote people of light complexion or red hair. “He must be foreign. He looks undercooked, man,” Santos says about Tomas. Although the politics of race shimmer in the background and come to unpleasant relief when an asshole would-be intellectual at a party boasts about casting non-actors in his amateur films, Ruizpalacios shows more interest in how teenage kicks dovetail with student protest, with which his formal experiments merge. A lovely sequence in which our heroes amble through the university in twilight while Sombra and ex-girlfriend Ana (Ilse Salas) flirt and the brothers call each other names has the kind of caught-in-amber freshness that many films about youth miss. “TO BE YOUNG AND NOT A REVOLUTIONARY IS NOT A CONTRADICTION!” admonishes one poster, an ironic callback to Godard films like La Chinoise in which sex and Mao commingle. But Ruizpalacios doesn’t have reaction in mind: he’s juxtaposing his anomic wannabes against a heady moment when testing their values sounds like too much work. Not when there’s Epigmenio Cruz to listen to.
Shot with a smog-grey look that honors Mexico City and cinematic forebears like Jarmusch and Buñuel (Sombra and Ana reenact a scene from the great Los Olvidados), Güeros wants to be Janus-faced: it looks forward and backward, creating the impression when it ends that sometimes it locks into place. Ruizpalacios’ drollness might curdle into cynicism in his next feature the way Jarmusch for many years made movies that approximated a vision of cool affectless modern photography that no one but he had realized. Veremos.