Director Alfonso Cuaron describes Y tu mama tambien, what I consider to be his first masterpiece in a string of masterpieces, as an adult film made about juvenile characters. After being fed-up with working for Hollywood as a director-for-hire during the 90s, Cuaron felt lost about the trajectory of his career and decided to go back to his homeland of Mexico in order to construct a more honest and personal film.
As the subject matter for his film, Cuaron remembered an idea him and his longtime collaborator, master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, came up with in the late 80s about two teenagers traversing the dreaded path from childhood to adulthood during a trip to a secluded beach.
This idea felt especially intriguing to Cuaron, since his son had just turned 17 and with Hollywood trudging out the same tired prom night-based rom-com over and over again, he realized that there weren't many films that dealt with the many nuances and frustrations that surrounded his son's age group in an honest and truly heartfelt way. Thus, Y tu mama tambien was born.
The screenplay written by Alfonso Cuaron and his brother Carlos takes a typical coming-of-age sex comedy premise and turns it completely on its head in order to create a tender, beautiful, fresh, invigorating and at times heartbreaking story. It's partly about the loss of innocence that comes with the realization that the masturbatory fantasies of our childhood can be so much more complex and painful when dreams suddenly turn into reality.
Yet it's also about the unstoppable progression of life regardless of how much we'd love to slow it down in order to cling on to whatever residue of childhood purity left within our being. It's the rare film that laments the loss of childhood while celebrating the path to adulthood at the same time.
The story is about two sexually active teenager best friends, Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna), taking an older Sapnish woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdu) on a long trip to a secluded beach they're not even sure exists in order to get laid with her. Luisa finds out that her husband cheated on her and decides to go on the trip seemingly in order to sleep with the boys and take her revenge.
However, Julio and Tenoch, as well as the audience, gradually figure out that her motivations are not as simple. Whatever path she has laid out for herself during this trip, she's going to drag the two boys into a world that has more depth than they would have been willing to explore at the beginning of the journey.
That main narrative is the first layer of Y tu mama tambien, and via Cuaron's honest direction, Lubezki's beautifully objective cinematography and the excellent performances from the three leads, it would have worked perfectly well on its own.
What makes the film that much more special are the many other layers that Cuaron adds to the story. First off, we get to experience the sociopolitical climate in Mexico at the time through the film's peripheral vision. Cuaron and Lubezki always make sure to keep the main characters in focus while exposing the country's political climate as well as the day-to-day existence of its people as objectively as possible.
Sacrificing the more subjective camera setups of a feature film with a similar subject matter, Lubezki uses his lens almost like a proverbial fly on the wall, a ghost who observes these people without judging or praising.
His trademark handheld long takes are never used like the obnoxious documentary-style shaky-cam of a preppy indie filmmaker but as a way of exploring the bustling life that surrounds the characters. There are many takes where the camera simply pans away from our trio in order to discover the many facets of the society they inhabit.
Another layer that truly distinguishes Y tu mama tambien is the brilliant use of the almost omnipotent narrator (A brilliantly dry and neutral delivery by Daniel Gimenez Cacho) who gives the audience various, seemingly random information about the characters as well as their environment.
Instead of utilizing a narrator to provide simple exposition into the characters' motivations or to plug up plot holes, Cuaron uses the narrator to give a special depth into the characters. It lets us know that nothing in life is as simple and straightforward as it seems. We get insights into how each character truly thinks about one another and the random snippets of their lives that actually shaped their identities, memories that they never shared with anyone.
Through the narration, a simple stretch of highway that's supposed to get out characters from point A to point B tells a story of insurmountable pain and grief. A character witnessing a best friend having sex with the woman he's attracted to bring out memories that even he's not ready to deal with.
One of the most poignant scenes in the film involves the narrator telling us that the car is passing by the hometown of Tenoch's nanny, a woman he thought to be his mother during the first four years of his life. If we were in that car, it would look like our best friend's merely looking out of the window, the way friends do during long trips. We don't think much of it, and that's kind of the point of the narration. It shows us that life exists all around us and is always much more complex than we give it credit.
It's time to take any previous home video releases of Y tu mama tambien and put those suckers through the shredder. Criterion's gorgeous presentation of this great film is now its definitive home video release. The 1080p presentation from a 4K transfer, supervised by Lubezki himself, is the closest you will get to the theatrical representation of Y tu mama tambien. This is an impressively clean and immersive transfer that practically puts the audience into the story. The DVD copy that comes with the dual format edition is also very impressive and will do the trick upconverted on a TV smaller than 40" until you get your hands on a Blu-Ray player.
The 5.1 DTS-HD presentation on the Blu-Ray provides astounding range and clarity. Y tu mama tambien has never sported a surround-heavy audio mix since the point was to capture a natural and realistic feel for the story. The surrounds are mostly used for occasional ambience but the way the dialogue, sounds and music (There isn't any non-diagetic music in the film) perfectly meld together, it makes us feel like we're there with the characters.
Get ready to spend an entire day with Criterion's release of Y tu mama tambien. Although a commentary track would have been more than welcome, there's a lot here for the film's many fans to chew on.
Y tu mama tambien, Then and Now: These are two documentaries on the making of the film. Then is a ten-minute feature where the cast and crew talk about Y tu mama tambien around the time of its release. Now is a more comprehensive forty-minute feature full of interviews conducted in 2014. Now is the best behind-the-scenes documentary on this release in my opinion, since it provides some very interesting insights into the production after the cast and crew were able to put some distance between themselves and the film.
On-set Documentary: This is a twenty-minute making-of documentary that was included on previous DVD releases of the film, therefore chances are you've already seen it if you own a DVD copy. If you haven't, what makes it refreshing is that it consists of footage taken during production, which is a departure from the talking-heads approach of the other features.
Slavoj Zizek on Y tu mama tambien: This nine-minute dissection of the film's ideologies is a treat for fans of Zizek, whose excellent cinema master classes The Pervert's Guide to Cinema and The Pervert's Guide to Ideology are strongly recommended for any film buff.
You Owe Me One: This 12-minute short written and directed by co-screenwriter Carlos Cuaron is an amusing farce about a family's naughty secret sex life.
Deleted Scenes: We get three brief scenes, one of them obviously an outtake. Nothing special or memorable to see here.
We also get a Trailer and TV Spot. All of these special features are also included on the 2 DVDs the dual format package comes in.
To wrap things up, we also get a thick booklet with an essay by Charles Taylor and in-depth character bios written by the Cuaron brothers.
The last time I watched Y tu mama tambien before today was over ten years ago. I have a feeling that this will be one of those films I'll revisit every decade or so and get something completely different out of it each time. Thirteen years since its release, it doesn't feel dated one bit. Even with their high standards, the good people at Criterion top themselves with this excellent dual-format presentation.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com