We Are Mari Pepa (Somos Mari Pepa): Morelia Review

A rough-and-tumble, enjoyable yarn about a group of 16-year-old punk-rock wannabes from Guadalajara.

The feature debut of Samuel Kishi Leopo, expanded from his eponymous short, stars Alejandro Gallardo as the 16-year-old guitar player of the titular punk-rock band.

MORELIA -- The teenage members of a Mexican punk-rock band with a single-song repertoire struggle to come up with a second tune so they can compete in a battle of the bands in We Are Mari Pepa (Somos Mari Pepa), the feature debut of 29-year-old director Samuel Kishi Leopo, who expands his eponymous 2011 short into an appropriately rough-and-tumble yet finally very enjoyable yarn.

Though Mari Pepa can’t quite decide whether it’s really the story of the band’s 16-year-old guitar player or, as the title seems to suggest, the story of all of the band members, who all still live all home, Kishi Leopo demonstrates a good eye for youth culture and the foibles of adolescence and manages to imbue his characters with an infectious and youthful spirit that the young actors, all encoring, unaffectedly get across in their characterizations.

This Morelia competition title’s international bow will take place at AFI and the film should pursue a successful world festival tour, with an outside chance of niche pickups, especially in the Hispanosphere. 

Alex (Alejandro Gallardo) is the long-locked guitarist of the Guadalajara-based band Mari Pepa (“‘Mari’ stands for marijuana, ‘Pepa’ refers to the female genitals,” Alex explains). The makeshift group further consists of the slightly awkward Rafa (Rafael Andrade Munoz), with a green baseball cap on backwards, behind the drums; the charismatic Bolter (Arnold Ramirez) on vocals and curly-haired Moy (Moises Galindo), the only proud owner of an actual girlfriend, on bass.

Their signature (and only) song is a punk-rock piece whose shouty refrain simply repeats the line “I wanna cum in your face, Natasha,” in English, though it’s made abundantly clear that perhaps only Moy ever got beyond second base. One of the film’s best scenes is a beautifully observed, rather uncomfortable moment when Moy brings his girlfriend along to a rehearsal, with the other boys simultaneously annoyed and intimidated by her presence and in awe and slightly jealous of Moy.

Leopo and co-screenwriter Sofia Gomez Cordova cap off the moment with some tension-defusing humor, when the alien presence in the boys’ midst cluelessly asks if they “know any One Direction songs?” Leopo supplies all his characters with varying reactions that are translated into body language that evolves throughout the sequence, not just when someone has a line of dialog, ensuring the moment feels just right both in the fore- and background.    

Though individual scenes feel authentic, the overall structure’s rather loose and there’s not a single narrative throughline. This has several advantages, including the notable absence of an utterly clichéd, battle of the bands-set finale. But it also somewhat diffuses the film’s focus, with Alex clearly the main protagonist but the agile camera also present in the homes of his peers, who have their parents nagging them about college applications and the like.

There’s a surprising scene in which Alex, looking to make some cash after his guitar’s stolen, attends a HerbaLife sales-pitch meeting and he unexpectedly runs into the unemployed father of one of his bandmates, whom he later sees sitting alone in his car in front of his home in what feels like the moment Alex realizes that adult life isn’t necessarily all that it’s made out to be. That said, the film’s portrait of the Mexican middle class mostly lacks any Y tu mama tambien-like social commentary that would put these boys’ adolescent struggles in a larger socio-economical context.

Though Gallardo has great chemistry with his peers, it’s his character’s relationships with adults that provide the most poignant drama, including the scenes with his ailing grandmother (Petra Iniguez Robles, also from the short). This storyline has the most traditional resolution, though Leopo manages to give it its own twist by introducing Alex’s half-brother, a plucky kid who apes his older sibling but who’s clearly still got a lot of growing up to do to get to where Alex is at the film’s end.

Technically, Mari Pepa’s also got a punky vibe and footage includes some low-grade images shot by Alex on his beloved, if battered, digital camera. The music, written by the director’s brother, Kenji Kishi, is perfect punk-rock wannabe material.

Venue: Morelia Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Teonanacatl Audiovisual, Cebolla Films
Cast: Alejandro Gallardo, Arnold Ramirez, Rafael Andrade Munoz, Moises Galindo, Jaime Miranda, Petra Iniguez Robles
Director: Samuel Kishi Leopo
Screenwriters: Samuel Kiski Leopo, Sofia Gomez Cordova
Producers: Toiz Rodriquez
Director of photography: Octavio Arauz
Production designer: Rebeca del Real
Music: Kenji Kishi
Costume designer: Clara del Real Aguiler
Editor: Yordi Capo, Carlo Espinoza
Sales: Figa Films
No rating, 95 minutes