Based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is an endearing queer coming-of-age romantic drama. Director Aitch Alberto injects an impressive Latinx cast into a story of sexuality, self-expression, family, and friendship.
Bathed in the summer sunlight of 1987 El Paso, Texas, we meet Aristotle ‘Ari’ Mendoza (Max Pelayo). As a fifteen-year-old Mexican/American, he is a voluntary outcast, a sombre boy who chooses to “stay away from everyone.” He finds the machismo of the men and his peers around him intensely repugnant. Living up to machismo demands led to his brother Bernado becoming incarcerated for a violent crime – one no one in his family will discuss. Bernado has been erased from the family and is a cause of intense shame for his father Jaime (Eugenio Derbez) a man who has retreated into his own kind of wounded silence. Despite support from his mother Liliana (Verónica Falcón) and doting Aunt Tía Ophelia (Marlene Forte) Ari sees the line of “masculinity” as near inescapable.
The film begins with the line: “To all of us who’ve had to learn to play by different rules” and is a story wrestling with with the homophobic and racial tensions of 1980s New Mexico. The AIDS crisis lingers like a phantom. It haunts the televisions of every nuclear family in El Paso with queer culture being a “plague” blamed at community and drug users. Living in a border town means that Ari is already marked out for exclusion and potential violence. Ari jests that he should join a gang for the simple fact he’s Mexican. Naturally, Ari’s modus operandi is to keep his head down and stay under everyone’s radar.
Ari goes to the local swimming pool to try to cool down in the extreme heat. ‘Small Town Boy’ by Bronski Beat plays in the distance as Ari flounders in the pool. He lifts his head out of the shallows to find the bubbly and talkative Dante (Reese Gonzales). Dante notices Ari is struggling, and immediately offers to teach him how to swim. Ari laughs at Dante’s name – they both share the monikers of great philosophers. Something about Dante makes Ari want to be seen – to lift his head up.
Dante is everything Ari secretly wishes he could be – a teen who freely exhibits his el apasionamiento. Curious, well read, and artistic. He has a love for music, poetry, and astronomy. His clothes are messy and colourful and his bedroom a reflection of all that makes him feel alive. Gonzales makes Dante infinitely lovable. He has an infectious and courageous nature, playing the character with optimism and intellectualism. With his heart-shaped glasses, he truly makes the audience believe he can teach Aristotle all the ‘secrets of the universe’.
Ari’s world however is sterile and organised, he looks at the arts with complete bewilderment and disdain. His clothes are muted and unadventurous, his hobbies are staring at his very bare walls. Despite their seemingly antithetical natures the find solace in their joint Mexican and American identities. They bond over the expansive possibilities of life and particular parents they find “inscrutable.” There is a certain liberation for these two non-conforming boys when they are with each other.
When Dante meets Ari’s family, he gives the parents an expensive book on Mexican art. Jaime is puzzled by the gesture, but Liliana thanks him. Dante says it was the idea of his father, Professor Sam Quintana (Kevin Alejandro). He and his wife Soledad (Eva Longoria) are considerably well-off. The class difference is not egregious but noticeable, Dante has a much higher perceived freedom in the way he can express himself. His family very promptly asks Ari to join them on a camping trip, where Dante confesses to Ari his love for the stars. It’s all going very well, but near the end of the summer, Dante informs Ari that due his father’s work, they will be moving to Chicago for a year. Dante is abandoned by the person who temporarily gave him access to his authentic self, which means he has to grapple with who that might be on his own.
The cliches of the young adult genre are layered thick and fast. One night, Ari has his and Dante’s Converse shoes tied together, thrown above electricity wires as a gesture of attachment. Pelting rain falls as first love kindles. The night sky becomes a beacon for romance. Characters are moody and stick to themselves. Tragedy strikes and people are crying by their bedsides. Thankfully it’s all shot with ample visual flare.
Genre tropes work with the film not against it. Teenagers need age pitched and resonant queer cinema. In embracing and subverting the form the film crafts a narrative that is recognisable through the plot beats and embraces the coming-of-age story in a manner which makes it both specific and universal.
The main performances are both well-acted, and it’s worth noting most of the cast are Latinx in background. The script sometimes offers some trite and stilted dialogue, but Pelayo and Gonzales elevate the material. Pelayo plays Ari with an aching complexity in the way he possesses internalised homophobia. He has to express a conveyor belt of jealousy, attraction and shame, but he makes the moments where he gets to be vulnerable with Dante shine the most. He’s conflicted but not without signs of growth.
As the film progresses, in living up to his name, Aristotle learns that “happiness depends upon ourselves”. The main blockade holding both him and a lot of young men back can be their own image of self. Ari can truly discover how to love once he stops internalising social expectations and conformity. He realises a pathway to masculinity without machismo. His parents are champions that want nothing more than for their son to be happy, and Dante has opened him up to a whole new confident world.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe does an admirable, if familiar, job creating a tender and well-realised romance. It tackles the multitudinous ways teenagers wrestle with and embrace their sexualities. A constellation of love and acceptance that triumphs against hate.
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