At the turn of the century, Alfonso Cuarón, the Mexican filmmaker best known stateside for “Gravity,” set off on his cinematic tour of rural Mexico with half a script, a handful of actors and not so much as a tripod to hoist up his lofty cinematic goals. The film that followed, “Y Tu Mamá También,” was a pulsating revamp of the classic road-movie, the backdrop of late ’90s Mexico so present that it became a character unto itself.

Cuarón’s integration of the melodies of Mexico into “Y Tu” feel natural because they’re always within the scope of his characters. The dramatics that carry the viewer through the film deal with much more inter- (and some time intra-) personal dynamics, yet as the three road-trippers travel south, a greater picture of the country begins to emerge. Cuarón drops in individual stories of loss and hardship that help the viewer to place the story of Tenoch (Diego Luna, “Flatliners”) and Julio (Gael García Bernal, “Coco”), the pair of friends at the center of the film, amid a wider frame of reference. 

In some ways, the difficult lives of the side characters that Tenoch and Julio pass along the way make the two kids’s story of sexcapades and adventure seem juvenile and immature — a minor plot that pales in importance compared to the grand Mexican narrative playing out around them. They are young kids who still seem to believe themselves invulnerable, and who haven’t yet reached the point in their lives where they begin to look past their own two feet.

Making such a pair of characters the viewer’s interface — alongside both the assortment of anecdotal Mexican side-characters and also Cuarón’s development of his own larger picture of Mexico — allows the viewer to develop a recognition for the lives of people different from them, just as Tenoch and Julio do. Cuarón expands the stories of all the people the boys meet along the way through narration and clues on screen, suggesting that there is far more to the lives of any of these characters than what we normally get to see in a movie. Cuarón’s sense of how to place his movie’s narrative within a larger world is unmatched, and it’s at the core of what makes “Y Tu” such an outstanding film.

Cuarón reduced the technicality of “Y Tu” on purpose, keeping it simple, filming the entirety of the film with one tripod camera, to capture the mood of documentary-realism. The camera bounces slightly as it floats around the characters, giving the viewer the feeling of a presence that can’t be replicated using shot-reverse-shot and dolly pans. And, once again, the technical side of the film plays into Cuarón’s dissection of the less-seen side of Mexico. Sometimes, the camera glides away from the characters to peer into the lives of those navigating their way through their own lives behind the scenes. In a scene where the characters stop off to get a bite to eat, the camera works its way through a doorway and into the kitchen, where we find an old woman moved to dance by the song on the radio just a few feet away from a trio of cooks hard at work. It’s brief, but it’s one of the many times the film ventures to show more than what it might have promised — more than a couple of friends on a road, but a whole country come to life.

Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” works with a similar setting-wise effect as “Y Tu.” It’s the best example I’ve got of another film where the whole of the characters’ surroundings — in “Manhattan”’s case the living, breathing streets of New York — can be abstracted out into one entity of its own. Allen’s opening monologue over Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” creates an aura about the town that’s held through to the end of the movie, setting the tone for the characters’ relationships and interactions along the way. They are to slightly different ends: “Y Tu” is much more focused on developing tiny, seedling stories along the way, whereas “Manhattan”’s establishment of setting is a visceral, palpable overture. However, the feat of developing a setting past a place is an accomplishment all the same.

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