After a prank backfires restless young Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) is sent to live with his big brother Sombra (Tenoch Huerta), a college student now stuck in a grungy apartment with roommate Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) as a result of the student strikes in Mexico City in 1999. Both brothers share a love of folk rocker Epigmenio Cruz whose music, according to legend, once moved Bob Dylan to tears. So when word reaches them Epigmenio has been hospitalized they set off on a freewheeling journey in search of their idol, amidst the tumultuous backdrop of the student protests.
The word "güeros" is a derogatory slang term in Spanish aimed at those with light skin. A running gag throughout the movie has people jokingly ask why Tomás is not dark skinned like Sombra. It is among several questions deliberately left unanswered in the thematic strategy of this debut feature by writer-director Alonso Ruizpalacios. Winner of five Ariel Awards, Mexico's equivalent of the Oscar, including Best Picture, Güeros was hailed in its native land as a multifaceted cultural redefining landmark. Overseas the reception was more mixed. While many critics warmed to the film's youthful energy, wry humour and sociopolitical satire, others labelled it a paradoxical parody of art house cinema or worse yet a meandering exercise in style over substance - though even detractors admired the style.
Certainly among Güeros' defining strengths, the dreamy black and white cinematography woven by D.P. Damián Garcia deliberately harks back to the French New Wave. As does Ruizpalacios freewheeling cinematic technique which matches the unpredictable narrative punctuated by moments of lyricism and surrealism. Rather than indulge in empty pastiche the film looks to forge a thematic connection to the similarly vibrant, challenging, sociopolitically-charged early cinema of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Ruizpalacios' fluid direction exhibit an impressive grasp of the medium that shifts in style to match each change in mood. It only gets a little too cute midway when a minor character breaks the fourth wall and starts complaining about the screenplay. Whereupon Ruizpalacios cuts to a clapper signalling a retake.
It does help to have some knowledge of the student strike of 1999 which was as tumultuous and socially significant in Mexican society as the one that rocked Paris in May of 1968. As Ruizpalacios stated in interviews, Güeros is a film of two halves. One a portrait of a key stage in Mexican social history. The other an exploration of youth who feel uneasy in their own country. At various key points throughout the narrative the characters are confined, powerless (literally so inside Sombra's apartment with his thwarted attempts to steal electricity from his neighbours) and frustrated only to periodically break free. Even then they often wind up in tense confrontations with hostile neighbours, malevolent gangs or unsympathetic authority figures. Nevertheless neither the central characters nor film itself ever lose heart. Tomás' tireless search for Epigmenio Cruz instills a vague sense of purpose in the hitherto aimless Sombra and Santos even though as various anecdotes build up a portrait of Cruz as a colossal screw-up the film hints their encounter will be anticlimactic. The journey includes a vivid vignette focused on the student uprising wherein the group reunite with Sombra's would-be girlfriend: fiery student activist Ana (Ilse Salas), whose name and glamorous third-act makeover are apparently modeled on French New Wave icon Anna Karina. Interestingly lead actor Tenoch Huerta felt Ruiszpalacios was disrespecting the student movement and only signed onto the film for the money. However, the film's wry warts and all portrayal of the rebellion is less obviously disdainful than marked by a sense of frustration as Ana's idealism runs into the familiar roadblocks as sexism, mindless anarchy and petty violence.
Güeros is a film full of unanswered questions, unfinished conversations and unspoken feelings. All of which coalesces into the implication that the future of Mexico is itself an open question. As events unfold the characters feel let down by commerce, politics, rebellion and art, but emerge with the sense that the one thing they do have is each other.