Y Tu Mama Tambien opens in mid-grunt, as a young couple frantically makes love. Ana (Ana Lopez Mercado Ortega) is leaving Mexico City to summer in Italy, so Tenoch (Diego Luna) spends their last, desperate moments together extorting promises of fidelity.
Across the city, Cecilia (Maria Aura Boullosa) is also getting ready to leave for Italy. She drags her boyfriend Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) to her bedroom for a quick tryst while her parents wait impatiently downstairs.
Once their girlfriends are disposed of for the summer, the boys – soon seen to be best friends – settle in for three months of loafing. They call themselves "Charolastras" (cosmic cowboys) and live by a ten point manifesto that begins "Get high at least once a day" and asserts that "jerking off rules!" They’re wastrels and layabouts, dedicated to doing precisely nothing for as long as they can get away with it.
At a wedding, they flirt with Luisa (Maribel Verd�), the beautiful Spanish wife of Tenoch’s cousin. She’s ten years older than the boys, out of place and uncomfortable, and she devours their attention. They’re shocked when, a few days later, she takes them up on their joking offer to accompany them on a road trip to an unspoiled beach, a trip – and a beach – that they invented only to keep the conversation rolling. They assume that this means they’re in for a week of hot sex with a frustrated, experienced woman. She’s actually after a jolt of their aimlessness and energy, a taste of the freedom they feel to waste their lives as they see fit.
Reduced to its plot, Y Tu Mama Tambien suggests an exploitive teen sex romp – a Mexican American Pie – where horny boys find their manhood in the bed of an older woman. The film’s achievement is rather trickier. The filmmakers (director Alfonso Cuaron and his screenwriter brother Carlos) aren’t pining nostalgically for their lost teen years: the film is too honest in its depiction of the boys’ sexual awkwardness and easily pricked feelings for that. (We’re not so much led to identify with them as to be mortified for them: it’s Luisa who is the audience’s surrogate.) Cuaron is far more interested in observing the way that sex intrudes on even the deepest friendships. It’s a film about young men growing up by growing apart.
There’s a charming shaggy dog quality to the storytelling at first. Nothing much really happens, but the details of the lives are so intimately imagined – and the performances are so immediate – that there’s enormous pleasure in drifting along with them. This easy ramble is interrupted occasionally by crisp, witty voice-overs that jerk us from a scene in order to sketch in details from the past or clarify a character’s feelings. This canny device, cribbed from Godard’s Band of Outsiders, keeps just distant enough from the events to cool down the eroticism and underscore the wider emotions at play in the story.
As the film rolls on, Cuaron ratchets the tension. Both boys want to sleep with Luisa, who’s beginning to realize that she’s stuck in the middle of nowhere in a decrepit car with testosterone-poisoned adolescents. Tenoch, the pampered son of a powerful politician, starts to subtly assert his sense of absolute privilege over Julio, whose single mother raised him in a dank tenement. And the narration begins to lower the boom, letting the audience in on secrets the boys have always hid from one another, preparing for the jarring turns of the final half.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoots the film with a fluid, offhand grace marked by drifting pans and colors baked in harsh sunlight. The film never seems bound by a set: there’s a sense of life teeming at the edge of the frame. The camera occasionally takes up the movement of an incidental character within a shot, following her out of the scene and into another, private world, staying there just long enough to suggest how many more stories there are to tell.
The film generates such a feeling of happening within the moment that it’s only after the credits roll that it becomes clear how far it’s gone. There’s real power in the way it works within the most pandering and trivial of genres, accepting its conventions before exploding them, moving from flatulence jokes to a final act that’s by turns shocking and devastating. For any film to sustain both its comic energy and its raw sexual jolt for two hours is remarkable; that Y Tu Mama Tambien manages to do so while building to its achingly sad finale marks it as a major achievement.