There’s no reverie Alonso Ruizpalacios’s Güeros can’t shatter, no presumed truth it can’t complicate, no expectation of closure it won’t dash. Set in Mexico City during 1999’s 292-day student strike at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, the film is about — if any one thing — proximity to decisiveness, about the young people who don’t think they are the answer to the problems facing their world but are eager to sleep with the ones who do. Its three male leads — two college-aged men, Federico (Tenoch Huerta) and Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris), plus Federico’s troublemaking adolescent brother Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre), sent to them for a lesson in maturity — spend most of the film without a mission, driving no place in particular, often on the edge of events that would mean everything in another film. Tomás’s would-be mentors are bored and disengaged, “on strike from the strike,” as they put it, but touchy about being called “scabs.” It’s not that these middle-class do-nothings don’t care about things — they just don’t care to invest themselves in the caring.
They crash the protests and sweet-talk firebrand student leader Ana (Ilse Salas) into dashing off with them; Tomás and Federico sometimes invest their energy in attempts to track down a once promising folk singer beloved by their father. Eventually, they wind up at a film premiere, where Ana’s a hit, and the boys slump on the party’s fringe. There, Federico finally reveals a passion: He detests the way indie filmmakers from Mexico make his country look terrible with the benefit of public money. “They grab a bunch of beggars, shoot it in black-and-white, and say they’re making art films!” he declares — and then he, Ana, and the boys annoy the swells by throwing each other, fully dressed, into the pool.
That speech, of course, is a surprise coming from a college student who seems fundamentally detached from his culture. What makes Güeros fascinating, besides the joyous invention of Ruizpalacios’s craft, is how the director emphasizes rather than hides his own authorial engagement — these characters might not have felt all that about their film culture in ’99, but Ruizpalacios feels it now, so why not allow Federico to let rip with a scathing thesis statement? The moment recalls some of Spike Lee’s best pedantic reality-smashing; elsewhere, Ruizpalacios is more playful. The first third of the film, in which the boys are cooped up in an apartment, is shot with static compositions, but when the boys have to dash out to avoid some furious neighbors, the camera through which we’re observing them is lifted off its tripod and then rushed down many flights of stairs. Later, Ruizpalacios himself shows up to ask his actors what they make of his script — a cutesy move, yes, but one that recontextualizes the movie as you watch it, one that offers us access to greater meaning without having to force the characters into the usual epiphanies.
It’s a movie of moments where no moment means much more than the others. But Ruizpalacios shoots and stages them with great inventive power, his fleet, roving camera inspired by the deceptive looseness of the New Wave — the film is always in motion but always composed with rigor. Images have stuck with me three days after seeing Güeros: feathers snowing down in a car to illustrate a young man’s panic attack; Tomás’s tousled silhouette, haloed in light, as he studies a gangly spider on a door — a vision of wonder that, as you savor it, Ruizpalacios jumps from, cutting to the jolting smack of Tomás killing that spider. And, best of all, that camera being wrenched from its base to keep up with the actors, a signal that this new talent is happy to chuck the niceties of naturalism to chase after what he believes matters.