It would be easy to dismiss Los Hongos as just another amiable, run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story. The central coordinates are certainly what you might expect: two scruffy, likable late-teen boys; a seemingly unattainable girl; graffiti, weed, skateboards, and BMXs; and a mother who wants more from her offspring. But how many teenagers look after their grandmothers with such matter-of-fact tenderness? How many adolescents quietly endure rather than fight their parents’ religious leanings? And how many teenage boys show such a natural affinity for feminism? In this often disarming, deliberately rose-tinted portrait of life in Cali, Colombia’s third city, the everyday is continually being hijacked by the social and political.
The very fact that reticent dropout Ras (Jovan Alexis Marquínez Angulo) and his more garrulous art-student compadre, Calvin (Calvin Buenaventura Tascón), are hanging out can be read as a comment on how race and class difference need not be a barrier to friendship. As the two of them amble through the streets, the things they see and the engaging encounters they have are at once part of their day-to-day reality and understated references to all the disparate elements that make up Colombian society: the endlessly proliferating election posters; Ras’s middle-aged mother and her two companions dancing themselves into a reverie of tribal nostalgia; Calvin’s grandmother’s tales of how gang members used to hide under her bed. With the camera usually placed right behind the two friends on their wanderings, the viewer experiences the city and its underpinnings almost as they do, even as the more stylized presentation of the duo’s actual encounters seems to be nodding at their subtly contrived status.
Between all these quietly loaded sights and encounters, a plot of sorts also unfolds, whereby the two friends collect ideas for a graffiti project, pitch them to an activist group at Calvin’s art school, and finally incorporate them into a collective mural, as a pirate-radio broadcast blares in the background. But this plot, too, is simultaneously a vehicle for the film’s more far-reaching concerns; it’s no coincidence that the main inspiration for Ras and Calvin’s artistic efforts is a YouTube video of hijab-wearing protestors in Egypt. With the activists trading Rastafarian slogans, Ras and Calvin experiencing past atrocities via old photos, family affairs being conducted on Skype, and old-school punk rock being used to take a stand against police repression, it becomes increasingly clear that even life in provincial Colombia is dictated by a ceaseless flow of images and ideas from both within and without. As Calvin’s art lecturer quite correctly remarks, it’s all about knowing how to see.
Los Hongos crafts its meandering, unobtrusively utopian worldview in such all-enveloping fashion that it feels almost incongruous once actual violence does rear its head, particularly when it’s depicted with so little of the subtlety that went before. And once the cozy, inclusive spell has been broken, both Ras and Calvin’s endeavors and the film itself begin to look a little naïve in retrospect: Why bother with all the lofty statements about the Arab Spring and solidarity if they’re going to be torn down so easily? Instead of genuinely probing how ideals fare when put to the test, Los Hongos is content to just fall back into its previous, now oddly compromised groove, shuffling its way through a third act whose repeated, largely unnecessary attempts to tie up loose threads make scene after scene feel like the last.
When the actual ending does finally arrive, it manages to encapsulate both the charm of the film and the limits of its approach. An extended, agreeably ethereal wander through the jungle eventually culminates in a wonderfully sustained shot of a tree, which one last cut then transmutes into the centerpiece of a mural back in the city. It’s a panoply of impressions, winningly captured, boiled down to a picture of a tree on a wall—though one convenient image is no match for the whole realm of experience.