Rush and Meander, by Dayne Linford
“Gueros” is a term specific to Mexico, meaning light-skinned or fair-haired. In use, it’s more playful than pejorative, but the implication is still there. Shades of privilege, youth and race linger in its tone, an acknowledgment of history and social distinctions. Similarly, Gueros, the debut feature film of longtime film artist Alonso Ruizpalacios, is specific; light and easy even as it touches on and pushes against these same notions of maturity, privilege, race, and class.
Ruizpalacios opens on discordance in youth, a baby sobbing desperately on a bed as his mother gathers her things. Ruizpalacios delights in this shock, and returns to it multiple times throughout the film, juxtaposing noise and silence, crashing them together to force attention and unease. Soon enough his mother scoops him up and off they go. Then, just as suddenly, a water balloon descends from the top of a nearby building and lands directly on them. Tomas (Sebastian Aguirre), choking on his prank, runs from the site of his transgression and we follow him, leaving mother and babe behind. He takes solace in a cassette player as his mother approaches him at an empty playground, informing him that she’s sending him away to live with his brother in Mexico City. And then we’re there, following Tomas as he scrambles around his brother’s apartment. The power is off, and eventually he collapses on the floor, exhausted. Upon morning, his brother and roommate sit at the table, mocking Tomas, but soon admitting their terrible state – a student is strike going on, occupying the college, and they’re stuck outside. Thus, in a 15 minute round, the audience careens from caprice to accidental cruelty to desperation to dislocation to politics to boredom.
Gueros moves in such a pace, alternating between rush and meander, a road movie trapped in a single city that feels as large, if not larger than, the stereotypical American west. Tomas has found comfort in a difficult childhood through his father’s beloved singer-songwriter, Epigmenio Cruz, on a tape left behind for both him and his brother, Sombra (Tenoch Huerta). He reads in a newspaper that Cruz is at a nearby hospital, dying, and he, Sombra, and Sombra’s roommate Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) set off to pay their respects. What begins as a simple trip becomes an odyssey across the city as they get caught up in a rolling series of events and neighborhoods, the scope of the city like a country unto itself. Eventually, they get caught back up in the student movement, allowing Sombra to reconnect with Ana (Ilse Salas), a leader in a movement quickly deteriorating, as well as a close friend and potential lover of Sombra’s.
Even as it touches on these myriad topics and many more, Gueros retains a light, easy tone, suggestions of the fear, struggle, and disappointment of maturity lingering just at the edges. Cinematographer Damian Garcia carries the weight of this film on his shoulders, shooting in black and white with the aim to capture the environment of a city almost like a nature photographer. In his hands, Mexico City is rendered vibrant and alive. Even in dilapidated barrios and abandoned slums, it carries an eerie, striking beauty. Similarly, Yibran Asuad and Ana Garcia deserve extraordinary praise as the editors, artfully arranging Damian Garcia’s shots in a deliberate pattern, evoking a sense of place as he does but also providing one of Ruizpalacios’ primary tools of drawing emotion out of his characters. It’s to Ruizpalacios’ credit that he steps up to such skilled crewmembers, utilizing the best of their abilities to create a well-rounded film.
But, despite its beauty, the clear skill of its collaborators, the smart performances, and the enormous amount of thought that went into it, Gueros does ultimately come off a little too light, a little too forgiving. It touches on notions of class and racism, but never really confronts them head on. To some extent, this is natural, given the inclinations of the characters it follows. But art is about revelation, whether it be ours or the characters, or, hopefully, both, and it feels like Gueros largely avoids these moments, bringing its characters to the brink but never making them quite look into the abyss. After a fashion, this is laudable, because, again, it is true to the characters. But the film shares just a little too much the characters’ perspective and allows just a little too much their naivete.