This debut film by Alonso Ruizpalacios is heavily influenced by the French New Wave, and it also brings to mind the episodic nature of Jim Jarmusch’s early films, with random oddballs dropping in to the easy-flowing story before exiting just as abruptly. At times the director struggles to keep his obvious cineliteracy in check, and Güeros feels achingly hip by dint of its nods and references, but it’s eminently likeable and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, clocking off while the principle characters still remain interesting. We begin in 1999 with a focus on Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre), a Veracruz teenager whose tearaway tendencies are proving problematic for his mother, so she packs him off to live with his brother Federico, a.k.a. ‘Sombra’ (Tenoch Huerta), a student in Mexico City. Sombra lives with friend and fellow student Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris), but their university campus is currently a hotbed of strike action, so the pair seem to be doing little else other than sitting around smoking weed in their apartment. They have been part of a protest group in the past but, somewhat disillusioned, have turned their backs on the demonstrations.
The three set off on a road trip of sorts when they discover that an elderly singer idolised by Tomás is critically ill in one of the city’s many hospitals. The film is split into episodic parts, the titles of which let us know roughly where the characters are (‘East’, ‘South’, etc.) as they try to find the
correct hospital in order to pay their respects. Eventually they stumble across the right one, but perhaps more importantly they stop by their university, which is so beset by trouble it actually resembles a city under siege. At this point the two older characters begin to reconnect (albeit only slightly) with the political issues that are directly affecting them, and we’re introduced to Sombra’s on-off girlfriend Ana (Ilse Salas), who is heavily involved in the protests. (The politics of the film is rooted in real life events, when the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México began charging students admission fees for the first time.) Ana joins the boys for the rest of their travels.
All four of these characters are interesting for different reasons, and their journey around the city is certainly an engaging one, but it’s the visual style of Güeros that makes the greatest impression. The callbacks to the French New Wave are obvious, whether it be Ana’s striped long-sleeve t-shirt or the rule-breaking playfulness of the director. In one early scene, for example, we see Tomás listening to music via headphones on the beach; the soundtrack is completely quiet until his mother takes the headphones off to talk to him, at which point we start to hear all the diegetic sound we would ordinarily expect: sea waves, birds, people, etc. It’s the kind of simple trick Godard was pulling in the early 1960s, and such inventive touches liven up proceedings considerably here. There’s a nice strand of experimentation with the editing and some of the insert shots, too, while it’s filmed gorgeously in black and white: tonally there’s a richness to Güeros that I haven’t seen since Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida roughly a year ago; very little is obscured by the shadows, and each frame is sumptuously crisp. Additionally there’s the focus on social issues, the 4:3 aspect ratio and the general feeling of a film being made on the fly, without the need of big crews or cumbersome equipment.
Alonso Ruizpalacios’ film sometimes struggles to be more than just an homage, but its own, non-European identity is eventually forged via Mexican cultural references, the settings and the slang terms that pepper the script; a title card at the beginning explains that the word ‘güeros‘ is a derogatory term for light-skinned individuals, and it’s used to comic effect here (though rather bemusingly some characters with dark hair and darker skin colour are also labelled as güeros, which makes me think I’m missing some nuance or joke). The film offers some insight into daily suburban life in Mexico City, too, or at least Mexico City as it was at the end of 20th Century. Overall it’s a confident, alluring piece of filmmaking, but I’m already more interested in what the director does next, presuming he has now got some things out of his system. Still, it looks as good as anything I’ve seen this year, and this is clearly the product of someone who does not lack for ideas.
Directed by: Alonso Ruizpalacios.
Written by: Alonso Ruizpalacios, Gibrán Portela.
Starring: Sebastián Aguirre, Tenoch Huerta, Leonardo Ortizgris, Ilse Salas.
Cinematography: Damian Garcia.
Editing: Yibran Asuad, Ana García.
Music: Tomás Barreiro.
Running Time: 107 minutes.