'Cuernavaca': Film Review | Outfest 2018

A melancholy look at a boy adrift.

Alejandro Andrade Pease makes his feature debut with a story of preadolescent loneliness in Mexico.

A small boy from Mexico City gets sent to live with his grandmother after his mother is killed in Cuernavaca, a well-observed, unhurried portrait of an isolated prepubescent who clings to the only person who shows him any kindness in the aftermath — a teen hustler who gouges the unhappy kid mercilessly. The presence of Carmen Maura as the boy's forbidding granny should ensure festival play, if not beyond, after the film's stateside premiere in Los Angeles.

Director Alejandro Andrade Pease opens with a sun-dappled, slow-motion dream sequence — one of several he cuts to over the course of the film — in which Andy (Emilio Puente), the blond, affluent middle-schooler who sees his mother gunned down in a random ice-cream parlor shooting, is terrorized by swarming bull ants. Ants serve as a motif, spilling from the ground and racing up arms or legs throughout the drama. Andy even keeps a collection of them in a tin beside the double bed that becomes his own once he moves, against his will, into his grandmother's hacienda in Cuernavaca.

The family fortune has been made producing jam, and Andy is quickly enlisted to weed and pick fruit around the property. He's shown how by Charly (Diego Alvarez Garcia), a handsome gardener rarely glimpsed with his shirt on. The time Charly takes to explain things to Andy contrasts starkly with the short shrift the boy gets from his grandmother, who refuses to discuss the whereabouts of her recently out-of-jail son, the boy's father.

Andy tries to contact him via an old, juiceless cellphone found in a drawer. Unable to leave the property — his grandmother is afraid of street violence, and constantly reaffirms a desire to leave the neighborhood to the undesirables — the boy turns to Charly, who encourages him to steal money for credit and a charger.

The demands made by the older boy swiftly escalate, leading to a moment of violence that echoes the one that led to Andy's exile in the first place. The relationship between the pair is physically affectionate but never explicitly sexual, though an early scene in which Andy witnesses and shrinks from a homophobic beating at school seems to imply a dawning consciousness.

Dad (Moises Arizmendi) finally shows up and takes his son to the fair, where it becomes clear that he's a compulsive gambler. His abrupt departure pushes the boy further toward the only intimacy he can access, in the form of Charly, while also distancing him from Dhaly (Dulce Dominguez), his kindly aunt with Down syndrome (and a dozen cats).

The casual cruelty inflicted by the young and angry is convincingly played by Puente, making his feature debut, and the story's Dickensian setup never leads to the kind of triumphant payoff a Hollywood coming-of-age story might supply. An experienced documentary filmmaker, Pease is largely unconcerned with narrative momentum, taking an approach to the material that is watchful and almost detached, with a lead whose treasured superhero costume fails to disguise a total absence of agency. The unadorned naturalism of proceedings extends to the sparing use of Andres Sanchez’s guitar-vocal score, as well as Fernando Reyes Allendes' precise but unfussy soft-gauze camerawork.

Production companies: Pisito Trece Producciones, Cinema Maquina & Home Films
Cast: Carmen Maura, Emilio Puente, Moises Arizmendi, Mariana Gaja, Diego Alvarez Garcia, Dulce Dominguez, Aranza Beltran
Writer-director: Alejandro Andrade Pease
Producer: Armando Andrade
Executive Producers: Fredy Garza, Ariel Gordon
Cinematographer: Fernando Reyes Allendes
Editor: Francisco X. Rivera
Music: Andres Sanchez
Venue: Outfest
Sales: The Open Reel Movies

In Spanish
89 minutes