Alfonso Cuaron‘s Y Tu Mamá También is among the more one-of-a-kind films to have been released this century. It’s simultaneously a teen coming-of-age film, a road movie, a sex farce, a commentary on social unrest in Mexico, and much more.
The film, which had its Cannes debut 20 years ago this past week prior to its U.S. theatrical release the following year, was an international smash that set Cuaron on the road to becoming one of the world’s most acclaimed directors. But what stands out most about the film ― on a rewatch two decades on ― is just how exhilarating it is.
Y Tu Mamá Tambiéntells the story of teenaged best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) who embark on a road trip with an older, married woman named Luisa (Spanish actress Maribel Verdu). Both actors were in their early 20s at the time of the film’s release, but they look much younger.
Sex-Filled Road Trip
The two teenagers have girlfriends who are spending the summer in Italy, so they’re left unaccompanied. Meeting Luisa at a wedding, they half-jokingly invite her on a road trip to a possibly mythical beach destination called Heaven’s Mouth. Upon getting multiple pieces of bad news, she takes them up on it.
This leads to lots of sex, in more permutations than you would think, over the course of the journey. Not to play the “that movie could never be made today” card, but not many films these days, even from world cinema, have quiteY Tu Mamá También‘s level of sexuality. Though Roger Ebert noted in his review from 2002, even back then, movies like this were nearly never produced by U.S. filmmakers. At any rate, the film has something that’s become even more rare: sex scenes that are actually sexy.
The movie could have just been about the road trip, the delicate dance, and the sex, and still been an outstanding, memorable movie.
But there’s a bit more going on than that. Cuaron uses a narration device that occasionally pauses the action. Sometimes, it’s to comment on the political background of what’s going on in whichever part of Mexico they’re in, often in ways to which the characters themselves are completely oblivious. Other times, it’s to fill the audience in on facts about the characters, with the knowledge of events in the future; a device deployed to devastating effect at the end.
Start of Something Special
Y Tu Mamá Tambiénrepresented a start of an amazing run for its director. Coming off a middling foray into Hollywood with the Ethan Hawke/Gwyneth Paltrow Great Expectations from 1999, Cuaron returned to his native Mexico to makeY Tu Mamá.
His next film after Y Tu Mamá También was a very different one: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of the Azkaban. It’s considered by most to be the best of the Potter films, and Cuaron is the best director to make one of them, by a considerable margin. I’m sure fan fiction has been written, re-imagining Y Tu Mamá También with Harry, Ron, and Hermione in the three main roles.
This was then followed by Children of Men, Gravity, and Roma; films that were essentially award collection machines.
For Y Tu Mamá, Cuaron was nominated ― along with his brother and co-writer Carlos ― for Best Original Screenplay, losing to another Spanish-language film, Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her. It was the first of 11 career Oscar nominations for the director, who eventually went on to win Best Director for both Gravity and Roma.
But great as those films are, Y Tu Mamá También remains Cuaron’s best to date. It’s a one-of-a-kind film no other living filmmaker could have made.