In an old interview included on Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition of the 2001 road picture Y Tu Mamá También, writer-director Alfonso Cuarón says that he and his co-writer/brother Carlos had the idea for the film long before they made it—and even before they made their 1991 debut feature, Sólo Con Tu Pareja. Cuarón dug the story for Y Tu Mamá También back out because in the decade since Sólo Con Tu Pareja, he’d been adrift in Hollywood, hustling to get the chance to make someone else’s movies. Cuarón wanted to get back to doing his own work, and he also wanted to make a film about teenagers that would say something about adolescence that his own teenage son could recognize and appreciate. The decision to go back home to Mexico for a small, personal film would change the course of Cuarón’s career.
Y Tu Mamá También has the rough outline of a 1980s teen sex romp: Gael Garciá Bernal and Diego Luna play Julio and Tenoch, two recent high-school graduates who’ve been best friends for years, and who get to live out every boy’s fantasy when a sexy, experienced older Spanish woman, Luisa (played by Maribel Verdú) agrees to join them on an impromptu trip from Mexico City to the beach. Estranged from her own husband and feeling lost in a new country, Luisa warms to these two goofy kids, who boast about their ridiculously immature rules for living and their sexual adventures with their girlfriends. Before long, Luisa seduces them both, and exposes cracks in their friendship.
The Cuarón brothers—working with their friend and cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki—treat a Penthouse Forum plot with the looseness and awareness of a French New Wave film. The movie opens with the camera practically creeping up on Tenoch as he and his girlfriend are vigorously, sloppily screwing; and that’s the same approach that the rest of Y Tu Mamá También takes, with Lubezki’s crew surrounding the characters like invisible documentary filmmakers, privy to some of the most intimate moments in their lives. The sex in Y Tu Mamá También isn’t softly lit, with superimpositions, slow motion, and power ballads. Luisa’s sexual encounters with Julio and Tenoch are clumsy, and over in seconds. In another interview on the Criterion disc, the Cuaróns describe Y Tu Mamá También as the movie they would’ve made if they’d never gone to film school, and that amateurishness extends to its refusal to glamorize. The whole film looks like it was caught on the fly.
That’s not how the film sounds, though. The biggest chance that the Cuaróns take with Y Tu Mamá También is their extensive use of voiceover narration, a storytelling device they decided to use when they couldn’t figure out how to turn a story they’d come up with 10 years earlier into a screenplay. They already had extensive notes about who the characters are—right down to the way that the upper-class Tenoch tries not to touch anything in the lower-middle-class Julio’s bathroom—and they came to realize that the notes were really what Y Tu Mamá También was about, more so than the love triangle or the mini-vacation. So they brought in Daniel Giménez Cacho to serve as the movie’s impartial, omniscient narrator, who interrupts the action periodically to read digressions and key bits of backstory into the record. The soundtrack drops away completely when Cacho talks, because what he has to say about Tenoch, Julio, Luisa, and Mexico is all crucial.
The digressiveness of Y Tu Mamá También is its masterstroke. In that first scene with Tenoch and his girlfriend—both naked in a cozy bedroom, under a huge Harold & Maude poster—there are sounds of sirens in the background, setting up the distance between Tenoch and Julio’s relatively comfortable existence and what’s going on in the real world. From then on, either Cacho’s narration or Lubezki’s camera (or both) will turn away from Tenoch and Julio regularly to show what’s happening outside their car: weddings, funerals, arrests, peasants eking out an existence, and politicians scrambling to hold onto their jobs in a changing social climate. Early in the the movie, when Tenoch and Julio are trying to gross each other out with their farts, and are complaining that the congested Mexico City traffic must be because of some dumb student protest, the camera and the narrator leave the boys behind for a moment to reveal that the traffic has actually slowed because a migrant worker who didn’t want to walk an extra mile out of his way to work was struck and killed by a bus. That’s the tricky balancing act that Y Tu Mamá También attempts: to make the petty arguments and lusts of these teens seem vital, while also acknowledging that they’re not really “important.”
Tenoch and Julio aren’t always the best company, and though Verdú gives a stunning performance as Luisa—who evolves over the course of the film from a tentative participant in the boys’ adventures to the person who’s controlling the whole trip—the character remains a somewhat abstract, idealized “older woman” all the way up to Y Tu Mamá También’s twist ending. But given that Y Tu Mamá También can be read as a metaphor for political and social maturity as well as a generalized coming-of-age story, the broadness of some aspects of the film is forgivable. The main characteristic of Y Tu Mamá También, which Cuarón carried back with him to the bigger-budget stage of Children Of Men and Gravity, is its immediacy and bluntness, which makes its scenes intensely involving in the moment, and then more profound as they play out later in memory.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition of Y Tu Mamá También collects a good mix of old and new interviews—the former shot while the movie was being made, and the latter shot recently. One of the newer interviews is with celebrity academic Slavoj Zizek, who talks about the Cuaróns’ clever use of background action, and insists that Y Tu Mamá También explains Mexico better than an actual trip to Mexico would. But Zizek’s insights pale next to those of the cast and crew, over a decade after they made what was the breakout film for most of them. In the 2001 interviews, they talk about the harmonious set; in 2014 they admit that Alfonso Cuarón treated his young actors like brothers that he could lovingly push around, turning them against each other for his own amusement and for the betterment of the film. All of the head-games Cuarón played were in service of revealing what 18-year-old boys are really like, rather than Cuarón telling them how to behave. On the Criterion disc, Cuarón calls Y Tu Mamá También “my first conscious film,” as opposed to a movie just meant to show off his technique. Watching Bernal and Luna interact with each other in Y Tu Mamá También so naturally and emotionally, it’s hard to disagree with him.