Tenoch is an upper-class brat whose capitalist father engages in dirty business practices, including selling contaminated food to the poor. Julio is a child of the struggling lower middle class, whose single mother works as a secretary in a giant corporation. After their girlfriends leave for holiday, the boys pursue their next sexual conquests with the determination of American teen sex comedy stars, masturbating at the country club swimming pool and fantasizing about sex from behind a cloud of marijuana smoke.
That frenzied, perverse strain might suggest something grossly vacuous in the film's portrait of a directionless, sybaritic Mexican youth, but Mama is also a vivid portrait of Mexico's extreme class divisions, where one group services every need and whim of the upper class.
Not content to mine that volatile subject, director Alfonso Cuaron also has made a more spiritual, quicksilver film about the various complicated truths that lie beneath the skin of things. Cuaron pierces the apparent shallowness and annoying bluster of his characters with a technique more familiar to the collaged, politicized world of contemporary art than current cinema. Throughout the film an omniscient, monotone male voice -- a combination of God and scientist, conceptual artist Martha Rosler and the somnambulist male narrator of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon -- intrudes upon the action.
Such narration discloses the social-economic background of characters, personal history, what they are thinking and what lies ahead. Like a bucket of water doused on a fire, such history and prophecy often complicates what we see on screen and questions the idea sold in film and in life that what is most evident is always the truth.
Tenoch and Julio are undeniably obnoxious beasts, but they are also still kids, as Cuaron shows in often-painful glimpses into their psyches. Driving past a rural village, Tenoch's mind drifts to his nanny, who grew up in that village and has cared for him since birth. At such moments, Cuaron shows not only the injustice of Mexico's class system but the stomach-churning sadness of a boy who was raised to call his servant "Mommy" but never learned about her life, her past, her home.
The other bracing truth serum, the force that drags the film and the boys from the realm of randy teen comedy into a more tender and complex artfulness, is Tenoch's relative by marriage, Luisa (Maribel Verdu). A sad-eyed Spanish beauty married to Tenoch's loutish cousin, Luisa finds out her husband is cheating on her and impulsively takes off on a road trip with the boys, who claim to know of a beautiful beach called "Heaven's Mouth." The boys imagine outrageous sexual adventures with their lovely female third wheel, and for the most part they get what they want. But the reasons for Luisa's journey and her sexual outrageousness only become clear late in the film.
Y Tu Mama Tambien may be the first film focused on teenage boys' sex drives that uncovers something both resplendent and pathetic. It presents sex as a kind of wild, electric force that scrambles Tenoch and Julio's brains. Luisa, in turn, teaches the boys not only about the delicacy and art of making love, but her very presence draws out something poetic from the most coarse and debased events. Touched many times by tragedy, Luisa finds an antidote to life's bitterness in her sexual adventurism with the boys. The contradictory impulses of sex -- its ecstatic highs and painful lows -- the tenderness and brutality it unleashes make Cuaron's film a tremendously honest picture. Sex in Mama is a kind of life urge, a bawdy, outrageous belly laugh in the face of mortality.
Cuaron captures the giddy, dusty, intoxicating flavor of a road trip with a stranger, the sudden intimacy of close quarters and the moving warmth and hospitality of the people encountered by the trio. Everyone is scrambling for a living, like the family of unofficial tour guides who show the visiting trio around the countryside, who cook for them and play soccer with them.
In another painful intrusion of the narrator, we learn that this family's idyllic life soon will be gone with the construction of a luxury hotel in the area. The father will become a janitor, and one family's Eden will disappear.
The narrator plays fast and loose with time and space -- he jumps into the future and divulges the past, and Cuaron makes us understand that nothing will remain, that life will change, and that we are touched by the circumstances and personalities we encounter.