‘Yo’: Morelia Review

French-born Mexican director Matias Meyer’s fourth feature is based on a short story by Nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clezio.

French-born Mexican director Matias Meyer (The Last of the Christeros) might seem like a logical choice to bring a film version of the short story Yo to the screen, seeing as it was written by Mexico-loving French Nobel laureate, J.M.G. Le Clezio. But something seems to have been lost in the adaptation even though its narrative is more clearly structured and also allows some character development to creep into the story of a man-child with a severe case of arrested development. That said, the film still took top honors at the recent Morelia Film Festival, the country’s most important showcase for local talent, which can only bode well for the festival future of this unabashed arthouse item.

“My name is Yo, I’m 15 years old, or that’s what they tell me,” explains the protagonist (Raul Silva) early on in a voice-over that’s more bookish than the loveable simpleton character seems to be himself. As that phrasing suggests, the awkwardly rotund lead, complete with facial hair, definitely looks older than 15 (he might even be double his professed age). He lives in a container that’s also partly a storage room at the roadside chicken restaurant manned by his mother (Elizabeth Mendoza), who has started annoying Yo by sleeping with a good-for-nothing who’s now also hanging out at the restaurant.

The Bottom Line

Intriguing but finally too opaque.

Yo is of course an odd name to have for a Spanish speaker, since it also means “I” or “me,” so when he introduces himself he’s basically saying “I’m Me.” But no one seems to find this odd and the whole name situation becomes even quirkier when we’re introduced to a kitten Yo looks after that he’s called Sin Nombre (rendered as “No-Name” in the subtitles, though “Yo” remains untranslated).

However, that’s just a minor oddity in this otherwise naturalistically shot tale, which at the surface seems to be about an outsider living in the countryside, where he’s kept occupied with killing the birds from the coop for the needs of the restaurant so his mother has more time to dedicate to her lover. The voiceover, for example, seems to be more intelligent or at least more explicitly aware than the person to whom the voice belongs; at one point, the protagonist walks from the restaurant next to the highway to the river beyond the yard to scream his heart out, while his voiceover remarks that he does that so people think he’s not retarded or an idiot.

There’s also an initially perplexing scene in which a boy in a wheelchair asks Yo if Yo can dream he can walk again so he’ll be free of his disability. Editor Leon Filipe Gonzalez and Meyer progressively drop more (initially quite disorienting) hints in the slow-moving narrative that gradually starts to make sense as a picture emerges of what’s really happening here and as Yo begins to emancipate himself and develop relationships with girls and women that aren’t his mother. The most touching of these is with 11-year-old Elena (Isis Vanesa Cortes), the daughter of a restaurant employee who likes spending time with Yo. But because he’s clearly much older than 15, there’s a sense of dread and menace that hangs over their increasingly intimate relationship.

Only very attentive viewing will reveal the complexity of the tale and the characters, though Meyer is just as often teasingly ambiguous, which will frustrate audiences who aren’t die-hard arthouse fans. One fragile character disappears without explanation, while another, who’s provocatively dressed and pushy, has sex with Yo, who says he’s done this sort of thing before. There’s certainly no suggestion he’s ever had sex before, and since we never see any money exchange hands, it’s not clear whether the woman is a prostitute or just a local nymphomaniac.

If Yo starts out as a naturalistic and deliberately paced drama, it ends up as an intriguing but finally too enigmatic and emotionally opaque film, which keeps its lead at a certain distance (Le Clezio’s style allowed a more ready access to Yo’s admittedly confused thoughts and world). That’s not to knock Silva, who is a non-professional — like the rest of the cast in this and all of Meyer’s other films — who has a fascinating presence but not quite enough material to work with. The film’s sparingly used, occasionally almost drone-like score is as minimalist as the rest of the tech package.

Production companies: Luc, La Pelicula, Axolote Cine, Eficine

Cast: Raul Silva, Elizabeth Mendoza, Ignacio Rojas, Isis Vanesa Cortes, Hugo Garcia Rojas, Alfonso Miguel Gonzalez, Nicolle Stivenshonen

Director: Matias Meyer

Screenplay: Matias Meyer, Alexandre Auger, based on the short story by J.M.G. Le Clezio

Producers: Julio Barcenas, Matias Meyer, Laura Amelia Guzman, Israel Cardenas, Hany Ouichou, Mathieu Denis

Director of photography: Gerardo Barroso Alcala

Production designer: Noemi Gonzalez

Editor: Leon Filipe Gonzalez

Music: Galo Duran, Chac Moola

Sales: FiGa Films

No rating, 80 minutes