Shot in black-and-white, in the boxy, old-fashioned aspect ratio that seems to be the latest thing in art-cinema retro fashion, Alonso Ruizpalacios’s Güeros manages to feel both sweetly nostalgic and exuberantly now. It takes place in 1999, during a period of student unrest in Mexico, and many of the young people on screen, militants and slackers alike, live consciously in the shadow of 1968, when campus uprisings shook the country and were murderously suppressed by the military.
Ruizpalacios is chasing his own, somewhat different ’60s shadows. With its sudden cuts, its fleet, ground-level camera work, its abrupt changes in tone, its blend of earnestness and insouciance, Güeros is an unabashed hommage not only to the Nouvelle Vague but also to a more general international new wave-ism. The story pops and swerves; the images are by turns comical, banal and ravishing; and the result is a briskly shaken cocktail made of equal parts provocation and comfort. You come away with a buzz that is invigorating and pleasantly familiar.
Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) is a teenager living in the coastal city of Veracruz whose exasperated mother exiles him to the capital after a water-balloon-throwing incident. That event is cleverly shown mainly from the point of view of the victim, a misdirection that sets the tone of frantic mischief that Ruizpalacios works hard to sustain. In Mexico City, Tomás finds his older brother, Federico (nicknamed Sombra and played by the witty and soulful Tenoch Huerta), who lives in a filthy high-rise apartment with his roommate, Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris). A strike has disrupted their classes, but rather than join the other students who are occupying university buildings, Sombra and Santos declare themselves “on strike from the strike.” Sombra drinks, smokes, suffers through panic attacks and tries to master a card trick. His only connection to the outside world is Ana (Ilse Salas), a radical whose voice drifts in from a pirate radio station.
Sombra is in love with her, but she may be involved with another guy, a serious activist briefly glimpsed in full revolutionary pomposity at a chaotic meeting. When Santos, Sombra and Tomás finally get it together to leave their pad — in flight from the very angry neighbor whose electricity they were borrowing — they eventually find Ana, and Güeros becomes a ragged and romantic road movie. The young people zig and zag, quarrel and smoke, blithely confusing their own chaotic passions with the movements of history. There is a mission of sorts behind this wandering: to track down Epigmenio Cruz, a reclusive singer from the ’60s whose music was so exquisite that he was rumored to have made Bob Dylan cry. (In one of the film’s formal jokes, the soundtrack goes silent whenever someone puts on headphones to listen to one of his tunes.)
In the Godardian spirit of Masculine Feminine and Band of Outsiders — artifacts of a time when to be young and French was both the coolest and most ridiculous thing you could dream of being — Ruizpalacios mocks his characters with unstinting affection. Through Tomás’ eyes, Sombra is a charismatic mystery and an emotional wreck — a child more thoroughly and poignantly lost than his younger brother, who serves as the director’s watchful alter ego. The relationship between them is the quiet heart of the film, which takes note of physical differences between them and hints at what those might mean.
The movie’s title is Mexican slang, derogatory but also at least sometimes affectionate, for people with light skin, a description that fits Tomás (and Sebastian and Ana), but not Sombra, whose nickname means shade or shadow in Spanish. As they meander through poor neighborhoods and fancy parties, sampling hedonism, idealism and cruel cynicism, the viewer catches glimpses of a society seething with contradictions and half-buried class conflict. Güeros is like a flip-book history lesson, one that evokes the pain and comedy — the pop, the politics, the tedium and the momentousness — of a particular moment in the endless, cyclical chronicles of youth and disillusionment.
Cast: Tenoch Huerta, Sebastián Aguirre, Ilse Salas, Leonardo Ortizgris.
Director: Alonso Ruizpalacios.
Screenwriters: Alonso Ruizpalacios, Gibrán Portela.
A Kino Lorber release. Running time: 106 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Vulgar language, nudity, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.