Gael Garcia Bernal burst onto the scene as an exciting young screen talent back in 2000 in Cannes, playing a teenager looking for a way out of the slums of Mexico City in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s triptych about human cruelty and violence, Amores Perros. Nineteen years later, Bernal returns as director of another story of hood rats angling for an exit by any means necessary. But Chicuarotes, which shuffles wacky caper comedy, absurdist melodrama and awkward eruptions of gritty violence in a messy collision far stronger on sustained verve than disciplined plotting, is an exhausting misfire.
Bernal’s 2007 directing debut, Deficit, revolved around a pampered rich kid content to shut out ugly reality, while this long-time-coming sophomore entry follows the opposite path. But any intended commentary on poverty and the social conditioning of the underclass toward crime gets muddied here in slipshod execution and an unfocused script by Augusto Mendoza that never settles for long enough on a consistent tone.
The title is local slang for residents of San Gregorio Atlapulco, a low-income Mexico City neighborhood still struggling to rebuild after an earthquake, dotted by rundown shacks near muddy canal banks. Inseparable teens Cagalera (Benny Emmanuel) and Moloteco (Gabriel Carbajal) are introduced in clown makeup working a comedy act on a public bus. When their busking efforts yield nothing, the more take-charge type of the two, Cagalera, pulls out a gun to persuade passengers to hand over their cash, watches, phones and jewelry. Their exultant getaway is energetically staged to a Spanish-language version of the Clash hit, “I Fought the Law.”
The gun belongs to Baturro (Enoc Leano), the drunken, abusive slob who regularly smacks around Cagalera’s mother (Dolores Heredia) while she does her best to shield her children from his slobbering rage, including her daughter Guily (Esmeralda Ortiz) and other son Victor (Pedro Joaquin), a not-so-secretly gay kid who endures his brother’s homophobic slurs and seeks solace in his porn stash.
Scrappy Cagalera’s plan is to get together enough cash to skip town with his hairdresser girlfriend Sugehili (Leidi Gutierrez), while Moloteco is mainly just along for the ride, his sweet, slightly dopey demeanor painting a sacrificial-lamb target on him once the action takes a dark turn.
First, however, there’s broad comedy when the guys team up with slick womanizer Planchado (Ricardo Abarca) to rob a lingerie store, a job that again comes up short in the promised haul. It then goes further awry when they’re pulled over by two horny plus-size lady cops, who flout their authority by forcing Planchado into sex. #HimToo. If that scene sounds both uncomfortable and unfunny, it is, falling flat like most of the intended laughs.
Mendoza’s script only gets more chaotic from there, as Cagalera and Moloteco hatch a hasty plan to abduct the officious local butcher’s young son. There’s some funny if strained physical comedy in Cagalera’s efforts to place the ransom note on the butcher’s chopping block, but things turn menacing when snarling ex-con Chillamil (Daniel Gimenez Cacho, the lead in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama) is recruited to root out the kidnappers, with predictably grim results. There’s stiff competition, but the film’s single most misjudged scene involves an attempted rape while all this is going down.
In a murderous subplot played for black comedy that seems to belong in a different movie, Cagalera’s mother is pushed beyond her limit by the grotesquely nasty Baturro, taking drastic steps to free herself from his tyranny.
Some of the young performers are mildly appealing, notably the livewire Emmanuel, the more sleepy-headed Carbajal and Joaquin, who brings unexpected dignity to a secondary character initially set up as the butt of grating gay jokes. But considering that Bernal cemented his international stardom with the wildly infectious youth adventure of Y Tu Mama Tambien, it’s remarkable how little he seems concerned here with making these reckless teens and their desire for a more rewarding life in any way endearing. There’s scant compensation on the craft side, too; the movie is visually untidy and its use of music often jarring.
Bernal is an excellent actor who has also had a hand in some strong projects as producer. Maybe he doesn’t need to be a director.
Production companies: La Corriente del Golfo, Cinematografica Amaranto, Televisa, Pulse Films
Cast: Benny Emmanuel, Gabriel Carbajal, Leidi Gutierrez, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Dolores Heredia, Enoc Leano, Ricardo Abarca, Pedro Joaquin, Esmeralda Ortiz, Luis Enrique Basurto
Director: Gael Garcia Bernal
Screenwriter: Augusto Mendoza
Producers: Marta Nunez Puerto, Gael Garcia Bernal, Thomas Benski
Director of photography: Juan Pablo Ramirez
Production designer: Luisa Guala
Costume designer: Amanda Carcamo
Music: Jacobo Lieberman, Leonardo Heiblum
Editor: Sebastian Sepulveda
Casting: Luis Rosales
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screening)