“Gueros” is as close as we’ll get to a parody of art house films while being a proud member of them. On the surface, it contains every element of cliché-ridden foreign art house movies, so much so that even the most novice of film buffs reading its synopsis might accuse co-writer/director Alonso Ruiz Palacios of pandering to the predominantly white and intellectual Western audience of such projects by cynically hitting all of the sweet spots in order to effortlessly score a sleeper hit.
Let’s look at the evidence at hand: It’s a black-and-white (Presented in 4:3 aspect ratio, no less) low-budget indie with a loose, improvisational story structure, about three slackers trying to find closure for their troubled pasts by tracking down a nostalgic figure from their childhood while political turmoil brews in the background. Oh, and did I mention that it takes place in parts of Mexico City that can succinctly be described as extremely un-touristy? You can’t build a more perfect art house package than that if you pumped the soundtrack full of Pitchfork Fest bands.
Yet Palacios continuously lampoons the clichés of such films at every chance he gets, while somehow managing to construct a heartfelt and refreshingly honest film about, hmmm, the fickleness of life? Resigning oneself to the unstructured chaos of existence while looking for dramatic pathos and divine purpose? The idealistic freedom of unshackled youth? The unbearable lightness of being? That’s up to you decide, I’m just here to tell you what “Gueros” is about, and what you can expect.
What it’s definitely not about, apparently, is the heavy-handed and self-serious story of an abused wife trying to run away from her horrible husband while struggling to build a new life. In a brilliant narrative bait-and-switch, Palacios opens his film with a raw and intimate depiction of such a woman running away from her horrible past with her baby in tow. As she contemplates her new life with forced optimism… Well, I shouldn’t spoil this for you, but suffice it to say that it turns out we’re actually supposed to be following the loose-thread story of Tomas (Sebastian Aguirre), a prank-loving brat who’s such a troublemaker that his single mother has no choice but to send him to live with his college student brother Sombra (Tenoch Huerta) in Mexico City.
It’s not like Sombra exactly has his shit together either. A borderline agoraphobic slacker who suffers from debilitating panic attacks, he lives with his nihilist roommate Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) in an apartment so dilapidated, that turning it into a crack house would be an upgrade. There’s an intense strike going on at Sombra’s university, a battle of ideologies between the far left wing and the moderate left wing members of the student body. Sombra’s stance on the strike is that “He’s striking the strike,” which is a clever way to say that he’d rather sit on his ass and watch bad TV through the electricity borrowed from the girl downstairs who has Downs Syndrome, which is totally a thing that happens in this movie by the way.
As the trio try to find a meaningful way to spend their down time, Tomas comes up with a mission that’s more than likely purposefully tailor-made for a quirky indie: They will track down a forgotten musician from yesteryear and ask him to sign a cassette tape of his album. Tomas and Sombra’s dead father, who was a huge fan of the singer, owned the tape, and just listening to his music brings a wave of joyful nostalgia to the brothers’ faces.
During a lengthy dolly in shot, Palacios shows the brothers’ being profoundly affected by the music, without letting the audience hear a single note of it. This choice can easily be accused of being overly pretentious. But while probably also being part of the film’s many self-referential jokes, it emphasizes that no matter how amazing the music might turn out to be, it won’t hold the same emotional weight to us as it does to the brothers, so why bother even trying? This way, the audience can fill in the aural void with a piece of music that matters to their own past. “He once made Bob Dylan cry,” Tomas tells his cohorts in order to convince them to seek out the singer. In fact, that line quickly becomes the “We’re on a mission from God” of this film as Tomas explains the gang’s quest to every unsuspecting character they encounter.
So a hilariously unstructured and unmotivated journey begins, one that takes the trio to a hospital where Sombra has to be explained what a panic attack is, the university where Sombra steals his ex-girlfriend Ana (Ilse Salas) back from a revolutionary wannabe, as well as a snotty party full of upper class intellectuals where Tomas and his kind are definitely less that welcome. It’s during this party scene where “Gueros” reaches its self-referential zenith. While a douchy art house director blatantly hits on Ana as he brags about casting non-actors as the poor and disenfranchised in his culturally important films, he completely ignores Tomas and Sombra, exactly the kind of people he claims to represent, as the three lower class boys are kicked out of the party.
Isolated from the “beautiful people,” Sombra gives a lecture, pretty much directly to the audience, about pretentious Mexican indie filmmakers who cast beggars and thieves in their films, only to then go to swanky European film festivals in order to complain about the vast amount of beggars and thieves in his country. He reiterates to the audience that they are indeed in the middle of watching pretentious crap that makes them feel like they’re contributing to the universal sociopolitical zeitgeist without actually doing anything.
Does the free-flowing story culminate in a convenient third act, complete with a grand speech summarizing all of the thematic and emotional beats of the film? You bet it does, but the fact that all of it’s capped with one of the most glorious examples of cinematic trolling I’ve ever seen makes the whole endeavor that much more worthwhile. Even though it sports gorgeous cinematography, an assured direction by Palacios, and natural performances all around, “Gueros” is bound to frustrate conventional filmgoers looking for a more tangible story, as well as the art house audience unconsciously looking for the same stylistic indie product that has been cranked out for decades. It’s a near-great film that’s proud to not have a pre-packaged audience. [A-]