Producers: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Valerie Stadler, Dylan Sellers, Chris Parker, Ben Odell and Eugenio Derbez Director: Aitch Alberto Screenplay: Aitch Alberto Cast: Max Pelayo, Reese Gonzales, Eugenio Derbez, Eva Longoria, Verónica Falcón, Kevin Alejandro, Isabella Gomez, Luna Blaise, Hanani Taylor, Diego Parra, Maynor Alvarado and Marlene Forte Distributor: Blue Fox Entertainment
Most gay coming-of-age and coming-out movies, of which there are now many, follow a fairly simplistic template. It’s to the credit of writer Aitch Alberto’s directorial debut, which she adapted from the 2012 YA novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, that it’s more complex than most; indeed, one could argue that it takes on too many themes, and that the subplots and coincidences, which can be comfortably digested on the printed page, grow a mite cumbersome and unwieldy when reduced to a mere two hours on the screen. Even the title comes across as a bit too much. But the film’s sincerity and tenderness make up for its structural deficiencies. A first-rate cast, including two remarkable young leads, is an immeasurable help.
The story is set in El Paso over the course of mid-1987 to mid-1988. Aristotle, or Ari, Mendoza (Max Pelayo) is a broodingly handsome old Mexican-American teen who deliberately stands apart from his classmates, not wanting to get too close to anybody. Part of the reason involves his relationship to his parents. His mother Liliana (Verónica Falcón) is a loving, caring woman, but his father Jaime (Eugenio Derbez, playing against type, and very nicely) is emotionally distant; both, moreover, refuse to tell Ari details about precisely why his older brother is in prison.
As the summer vacation begins, Ari tries to escape the heat at the public swimming pool, though he’s never learned to swim. There he meets chatty Dante Quintana (Reese Gonzales), an ebullient fellow who offers to teach him. They quickly become buddies (why they’ve never met before, at school for example, is a question the script doesn’t bother to address), and Dante’s parents Sam (Kevin Alejandro) and Soledad (Eva Longoria) warmly welcome Ari to their home—and take him on outings to the countryside, where Dante introduces Ari to one of his many passions, astronomy.
The summer idyll ends in near-tragedy, as Ari is seriously injured while pushing Dante out of the way of a speeding car (Dante’s rushed to help a struggling bird, oblivious to the anger). He’s still in a cast and on crutches when Dante leaves in the fall for Chicago, where Sam has landed a one-year academic slot. For the next nine months the film’s focus stays on Ari as he gets a job (at a fast food place called the Charcoaler), links up with girls (Isabella Gomez, Luna Blaise, Hanani Taylor) though he resists getting serious with any of them, and gets a birthday present of a 1957 red Chevy Cameo—described as a real Mexican truck—from his parents. There are exchanges of letters with Dante, who reveals in one that he’s decided he has to come out to his parents—and to Ari.
So things have changed between them when Dante returns in the fall, wondering whether Ari might feel as he does, and a test of Ari’s feelings that Dante presses on him threatens to rupture the friendship. From this point the plot adds elements that either flesh out the remaking of their relationship—a revelation about Ari’s Tia Ophelia (Marlene Forte), another about the crime for which Ari’s brother is imprisoned, an incident involving Dante, a fellow named Daniel (Diego Parra), a friend of Ari’s named Julian (Maynor Alvarado) and a burst of violent machismo—or over-explain it with rather heavy point-making, depending on your point of view.
What stands out, however, are the nuanced performances Alberto draws throughout the third act, not only from Pelayo and Gonzales, who handle scenes that could have devolved into hokey melodrama with a sensitivity unusual in actors still honing their craft, and especially Derbez, who makes you forget his comedic roots as Jaime expresses the depths of his pain and his desire to see his son come out of his self-imposed shell.
The film is clearly not a big-budget affair, but cinematographer Akis Konstantakopoulos uses the locations and Denise Hudson’s production design to fashion some eye-catching images, and while editors Harry Yoon and Stefanie Visser are unable to manage the shifts from act to act, or the various plot devices in the third, with perfect smoothness, they maintain a judicious pace. Isabella Summers’ score adds a meditative air while allowing for the incorporation of period-reflective pop songs.
“Aristotle and Dante” manages to transfer the book’s treatment of two boys struggling to confront their ethnic and sexual identities in a sometimes hostile environment to the screen affectionately and affectingly, mixing realism and a touch of magic realism pretty skillfully. Among gay coming-of-age stories, it’s distinctive and touching.