Alonso Ruiz Palacios is aware enough of his place in Mexican cinema’s new wave to include a couple of jarringly meta references in his otherwise fourth-wall-preserving debut film, Güeros, first popping into the frame to ask one of the actors what he thinks of the screenplay and then giving another character a speech about “fucking Mexican movies.” But if most of the art films to come out of Mexico over the last couple decades “grab a bunch of beggars,” as Palacios’s complainer goes on to say, to score points about social justice or the disintegration of the social fabric, Güeros follows in the footsteps of movies such as Y Tu Mamá También and Duck Season. The film’s social commentary unspools quietly in the background while the narrative focuses on the ennui, free-floating anxiety, and inchoate longing for meaning experienced by two or three privileged young people from the middle- to upper-middle classes.
The most vivid of Güeros’s somewhat underdeveloped characters are Frede (Tenoch Huerta) and Ana (Ilse Salas). Frede, a student “on strike from the strike” that’s transformed his college and much of the rest of Mexico City, is a softhearted sweetheart hiding from life in his concrete-block apartment when his little brother, Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre), arrives from Veracruz for a visit. Their mother wants him to look after Tomás, but he can barely fend for himself, fighting off panic attacks while talking to his easygoing roommate and best friend, Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris), or listening to his crush, Ana, DJ on pirate radio. Ana is a charismatic beauty with huge, penetrating eyes who’s become one of the leaders of the student strike Frede is avoiding, and she seems to have enough drive and self-confidence for the two of them. Frede relaxes and expands in her company, but the filmmakers’ staunch fidelity to the unresolved messiness of life ensure that Ana and Frede’s story, like all the other strands that make up the film’s loosely structured narrative, never reach a tidy conclusion.
Forced out of the apartment a few days after Tomás arrives, the brothers and Santos—and Ana, after she joins them—drive all over the city and beyond. Though they don’t seem to have a real purpose, they never lack for a short-term goal. Sparking and sparring with one another, making small talk, and getting lost, they move through a series of worlds within the city, looking for Ana, for a party, and for Epigmenio Cruz (Alfonso Charpener), a singer their father loved whose claim to fame is that he once made Bob Dylan cry. Their lives, like the film, appear to be just a series of random episodes, but the relationships that emerge and intensify between them are enough to keep them going, and the missions they embark on give the film just enough forward momentum. The cinematography amplifies the intensity of every setting and encounter, with Damian Garcia frequently zooming in close on an expressive face or blurring the edges of an image, as if shooting with a pinhole camera, to focus our attention. At times the filmmakers home in on something with hallucinatory clarity (a captivity-crazed tiger in the zoo, a dense snowfall of feathers imagined inside the car by a panicked Frede), and the image is held just long enough to imprint it on our inner eye.
The bubble of self-created urgency and intimacy that the travelers live inside never quite gets burst, but things can get very tense in an instant, like when the main characters are surrounded by a threatening gang of kids in a rough neighborhood, or when their windshield is shattered by a brick dropped from a highway overpass. But more typical of the film is the encounter the four have with the former girlfriend of the producer of a concert where Cruz was supposed to play years ago. There’s no major dramatic climax, revelation, or emotional breakthrough as she tells them how the musician lost his chance to play the concert by insisting on pursuing her. There’s just a good story—full of life and related with intelligence and a sense of humor.