It doesn’t matter that Iggy Pop endorses Carnival Cruises, or that Ramones-style crunch chords now power Top 40 country hits. Today punk is whatever you need it to be when you’re at the age that you need it. And it’s endlessly localizable: In its blurt, the giddy Swedish school girls of Lukas Moodysson’s recent We Are the Best! found not just the pleasure of revolt but also a chance to seize a political high-mindedness they found lacking in their parents, even if the only song their band bothered to write was an attack on their gym class.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in the Guadalajara of Samuel Kishi Leopo’s sweet (but sharper-edged) We Are Mari Pepa, gangly teen boys take up guitar and drums to shout about what matters most to them, too. Their band, Mari Pepa, manages two songs before the film ends. The chorus of the first they bellow in English: “I wanna cum in your face, Natasha!” Only after the aggro shock-comedy of that can they admit to more tender feelings: “Because I love you!”
In both films, punk is an identity, a chance to vent, a thing to do for kids not into sports — and not successful, yet, at love. Unlike those principled Swedes, the boys of Mari Pepa are horny and rude, often dispiritedly so, catcalling strange women and calling each other “faggot.” (Bass player Moy, played by Moises Galindo, gets that because he’s spending too much time with a girl.) Writer/director Leopo makes no apologies for this collective nastiness. Instead, he presents it as a default mode for communication among the film’s middle-class boys, all motormouthed and inexperienced; not one of them can make it through a conversations without claiming to have had sex with someone else’s mother. It’s a stage of development, and Leopo suggests, in the final reels, that the band’s sympathetic songwriter Alex (Alejandro Gallardo) may be growing out of it.
It’s at a party full of kids he doesn’t know that rangy Alex seems to realize he might need to move on. A girl asks why his band is called “Mari Pepa,” and his answer is honest — and just a touch abashed: ” ‘Mari’ is for ‘marijuana,’ and ‘pepa’ is a reference to the female genitalia.” After that, he can’t quite bring himself to meet her eyes, but then she and Alex stand together in a state of glazed expectation as a band much more accomplished than his wails on. Eventually, Alex plumbs up a courage not unrelated to whatever urged him to write that ode to Natasha’s face. He leans in to kiss the girl whose face he’s too shy to look into.
The story is slight, but the film is full of such miraculous moments of life. Scenes of Alex lounging around his poster-collaged bedroom suggest the primalness of such private spaces. It’s a chrysalis stickered over with what it is he hopes to become. Early on, we see he’s taped a photo of his face onto the head of Joey Ramone. More powerfully still, he’s hung a sliver of mirror over Ramone’s brow in another photo — as Alex looks into it, his eyes peer out of the face of rock’s great gawky beanpole. Alex’s only adult guardian, his silent and God-fearing grandmother (Petra Iniguez Robles), gives the bedroom the stink eye; in one of We Are Mari Pepa’s few plotlike developments she strips the walls bare after hearing a preacher insist that “Hotel California” — and by extension rock music itself — demands thralldom to Satan. But she can make distinctions: She leaves up a still of Michael Jackson palling around with Paul McCartney, the latter in a smashingly sensible 1983 sweater.
Unlike We Are the Best!, Leopo’s film is no period piece. It’s set in the eternal now of punk adolescence, a time that seems never changing yet gets stranger every year. In their rehearsal space, the Mari Pepa boys have hung up a Beatles poster, and they’ve scratched their own band name on it. For them, the Beatles are punk, pretending not to be afraid of sex is punk, being young and dumb and not especially committed to anything is punk. In the opening scenes, after some half-assed skateboarding, Alex urges the rest of Mari Pepa to get serious about prepping for a battle of the bands. They work at it, for a while, until Moy gets too distracted by a beautiful One Direction fan, and drummer Rafael (Rafael Andrade Munoz) gets caught up with college applications. The contest comes up a couple times, but by the end, even Alex hardly cares. A movie about a band that never even gets to the kind of show that climaxes every other movie about a band? That’s punk, too. We Are Mari Pepa is a sweaty, urgent, beautifullyhonest bliss out.