After their girlfriends leave for Europe, Tenoch and Julio desperately search for some way to pass the time in their last Summer vacation before college. After just a few days the two teenagers from Mexico City have already grown bored of their lazy lifestyle, and jokingly invite Luisa, the wife of Tenoch’s cousin, to join them on a road trip to a fictional beach, Heaven’s Mouth. To their surprise, she agrees to join them after learning of her husband’s infidelity, and the unlikely trio sets off through rural and poor Mexico. Y tu mamá también is just as much about this rural Mexican backdrop in the context of the country’s globalization as it is about the trio’s road trip to the beach. During the trip, the boys pass the time bragging about their relationships and sexual experiences, while Luisa increasingly teases them and prods for more information. They do eventually reach a beach destination, but their journey is not without conflict and tension. But through those also complete their own personal trips of discovery; Luisa negotiates what to do with her immediate future, and Tenoch and Julio’s friendship evolves as the two boys continue their steps from childhood into adulthood.
Along with Alejandro Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron is part of the so-called “three amigos” of Mexican cinema. These directors have become increasingly popular for their work during the Mexican film industry’s transition from an independent player to a participant in the global cinema market. While Cuaron has produced global Hollywood blockbusters, such as Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Gravity (2013) he has also continued to produce relatively localized work within Mexico’s film industry and has helped to define components of the Modern Era of Mexican film. One such example of Cuaron’s work in this area is his 2001 film Y tu mamá también. Though it is frequently presented as a traditional road trip comedy, the film also serves as commentary on the issues of modernization, and the realities of life in rural Mexico. Through a combination of a “straying camera” and deliberate editing techniques, Cuaron produced a film that operates on two levels—as a lighthearted road trip comedy, and as serious commentary on the current conditions in Mexico as well.
Within Mexico, the film industry developed in a similar fashion to cinema throughout Latin America, and globally as well. It went through a golden age during which annual film production was an all time high. This has since died down, and the Mexican film industry has found itself competing with the American dominance of Hollywood films. It was only in the last few decades that Mexico has really entered the global market and has been competing directly with other nations in what has become known as the Modern Era of Mexican cinema. This is the context in which Y tu mamá también was produced and released. According to Nuala Finnegan, films from this era operate in a duality of marketplaces; they appeal to widespread conventions to find success in a global market, yet simultaneously remain localized and directly address issues situated within Mexico. With Y tu mamá también, Cuaron created for global audiences a comedic road trip film with two young boys and a sexy older woman, and for local audiences a critical look at the issue of Mexico’s modernization, and the role of rural areas at a time when cities and urban centers are continuing to experience rapid growth.
On the surface level, the film’s narrative fits well within the conventions of the road trip genre. The casual dialogue and jokes the trio fire back and one another is light-hearted enough that the film is able to stand alone as a comedy. The sexual tension that develops between Luisa and the boys is typical for many other teenage summer vacation films, as is the open manner in which all three characters are willing to discuss, and even joke about, their sexual experience. It is entirely possible that barring MPAA regulations, many US road trip and teenage vacation films would unfold very similarly to Y tu mamá también. Additionally, Cuaron employs the use of a expansive soundtrack throughout the film, using music to bridge both time and space throughout the course of the road trip. In this sense, Y tu mamá también generally adheres to the conventions of the road trip genre. However, there are many instances where Cuaron breaks from the conventions of the road trip genre and utilizes the backdrop of the trio’s trip—rural Mexico—along with specific cinematic techniques to develop a sub textual meaning that confronts the audiences with the difficult role of rural spaces amidst the ongoing modernization of Mexico.
One of these techniques is what has been described by some critics as a “straying camera.” Thoughout the narrative, Cuaron allows the camera to drift away from Luisa, Julio, and Tenoch and instead move the frame to show something else that is happening within the scene. For example, during the wedding scene, the camera pans away from the primary characters to follow a waitress as she takes food to bodyguards waiting outside the venue. In another instance, the trio is waiting inside a restaurant in a rural city; the camera moves from the three sitting at a table into a back room, where the family that owns the restaurant is preparing food and washing dishes, all within the same space that they live. Finnegan suggests that this straying camera technique demonstrates to the audience “that there is more to see” and has the effect of creating the “confused portrait of the nation that emerges by the end of the film” (38). Highlighting Finnegan’s argument is another example of Cuaron’s straying camera in which the trio’s car drives past a police checkpoint, and lingers behind to show another car that is stopped and being searched. This shot lingers much longer than would be expected, remaining centered on the police search. It is only after the boys’ shouts of “no mires, no mires” (don’t look, don’t look!) that we cut back to the car that has long since continued down the road, almost as if to provoke the audience into questioning if the police checkpoint was something they were allowed to be looking at, let alone something they should pay attention to for the narrative. In other words, the use of the straying camera makes it difficult for the audience to know what is important to focus on, and what is just background information. By doing so, Cuaron showcases bits and pieces of life in rural Mexico while simultaneously developing a sense of uncertainty.
This uncertainty allows Y tu mamá también to exist as a comedic road trip film, but while simultaneously presenting a more serious subtext that address a wide array of complex issues related to the new role of rural spaces in the current state of Mexico’s development. While Cuaron doesn’t provide any answers to the questions and issues that he raises throughout the film, the use of a straying camera technique enables the audience to at least become aware of the realities of life within those rural areas, and question what their future may be as Mexico continues to develop as an economic power in the global market. This situates Y tu mamá también well within the contexts of the Modern Era of Mexican cinema. It identifies and critiques actual issues local to the country, but without necessarily claiming to have the solution to the problems. There are two Mexicos presented in Y tu mamá también and within reality as well—one that has developed into an economic power, and another rural version that has largely been left behind. Cuaron’s ability to showcase both Mexicos within a road trip comedy cements his place among other great directors as one of “the three amigos.”
Cuarón, Alfonso. Y Tu Mamá También. 2001. Film.
Finnegan, Nuala. “So What’s Mexico Really Like?” Framing the Local, Navigating the Global in Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También. pp. 29–50.