VARIETY: ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’ Review: Should Best Friends Become Boyfriends?
July 25, 2023
Produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and featuring Eva Longoria and Eugenio Derbez, this history-making portrait of two questioning West Texas teens will have queer kids breathing a sign of recognition.
As someone who grew up in Texas back in the late 1980s, when “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” takes place, I can assure you: The last thing any closeted Southern teen wants is to stand out. That must make it a special kind of torture to be named after thinkers one’s peers aren’t likely to read until college. Then again, it’s also a rather wonderful bonding opportunity for two boys who don’t fit in until they find one another — though it’ll take some figuring out to untangle what both of them want in a movie I dearly wish had existed several decades earlier.
Now’s as good a time as any for the world to discover Aristotle and Dante — not the Greek philosopher and the “Divine Comedy” author, but the title characters of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s beloved YA novel. Imagine “Brokeback Mountain” by way of Judy Blume. Set in El Paso, the book poses a question a quarter-century ahead of its 1987 setting, but perfect for ours: Should best friends become boyfriends? In Sáenz’s two “Aristotle and Dante” novels, self-questioning teens found a frank, age-appropriate parable featuring two Mexican American boys who literally adore each other. But only Dante identifies as gay, so what do they do?
That’s just one of the many refreshingly mature real-world issues writer-director Aitch Alberto responded to when adapting “Aristotle and Dante” to the big screen, and she’s done an impressive job of carrying the complexity of the novel’s themes over to the movie, even if the ambitious helmer (who also happens to be trans) seems to cram too much in at times. Taking big risks on her first feature, Alberto picked a story in which underage boys buy beer, smoke weed and deal with serious anger management issues, where one character gets gay-bashed and another gets so violent he actually beats someone to death, and she insisted on keeping those elements in her script.
Like many an indie production, this one feels rough around the edges, with parts that drag (like the stretch Dante spends in Chicago) and others that demand the benefit of the doubt (such as casting comic star Eugenio Derbez as a closed-off dad with a bad case of PTSD). But it also boasts moments so magical, they seem destined to mark a generation of viewers lucky enough to have such a film. They deserve a corny-endearing romantic symbol like that of two Converse sneakers, one white, the other red, dangling from a low-hanging electric line, the way the cishets had John Cusack blasting Peter Gabriel from his boombox.
Alberto’s toughest challenge was finding two young actors who could do justice to the characters: boys who don’t relate to the horndogs in the locker room, boasting about their fantasies and conquests. Ari had to be simultaneously tough and vulnerable, at once stoical and charismatic enough for audiences to crush on him. Dante should be a free spirit, who talks a mile a minute and walks down the street barefoot, someone bound to thrive decades after the school bullies have peaked.
Alberto gambles on two unknowns, and it works. In Pelayo’s case, audiences can feel the effort the young actor is putting into his performance — a weakness that ultimately works to the role’s advantage, since Ari’s supposed to be stuck in his own head. Meanwhile, playing an English-speaking kid with questions about his Latino heritage, Gonzales is Dante, totally convincing as someone who’s simultaneously vulnerable and uninhibited, capable of asking his buddy about masturbation without tilting the movie into raunchy comedy territory. Their dynamic hinges on a tricky kind of chemistry, where audiences instantly get why they would be friends, but aren’t sure whether they should take it to the next level. (Alberto also found the perfect vintage Chevy pickup, a rusty red 1957 Cameo — what Ari calls “a real Mexican truck!”)
Does it really matter how close Alberto sticks to the source material? Truth be told, I never would have discovered Sáenz’s book had it not been for Alberto’s adaptation, which I’ve now seen three times. It’s not that the movie is so good that I couldn’t get enough (although I guarantee there will be audiences who stream it over and over, memorizing every line). It’s more that I couldn’t reconcile how this story that seemed so original and necessary, so packed with ideas no director had put on-screen before, could wind up feeling like the safe Nickelodeon version of itself.
Taking a page from “Call Me by Your Name,” the movie dares to be sexy, putting its 15-year-old characters in those skin-bearing crop-tops and shorts guys wore in ’80s horror movies like “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Sleepaway Camp.” But it piles on a few too many after-school affirmational scenes in which parents assure their kids they have nothing to be ashamed of (Eva Longoria embodies Dante’s too-perfect mom, while Derbez plays Ari’s emotionally damaged dad). With the adults on their side, the kids’ conflict is not about resisting a homophobic world that, in 1987, was totally unequipped to deal with the AIDS crisis (referenced in background TV broadcasts). Dramatically speaking, their struggle is largely internal, as the two boys wrestle with themselves.
Seeing the movie compelled me to track down and read the novel (technically, I let Lin-Manuel Miranda read it to me, since the “Hamilton” creator loved Sáenz’s work so much, he recorded the audiobook … and then went on to produce Alberto’s film). Instantly, I got what he saw in it. Yes, it’s a love story, but it’s also an incredibly beautiful exploration of intersectionality and trying to make sense of one’s multidimensional identity — of growing up Latino in a bilingual household, of finding room to be sensitive in a society that celebrates machismo.
Sure, Ari worries that he might be gay, but he’s even more frightened by another impulse raging within him. Ari knows that his older brother is behind bars, and he fears that his own temper could land him in the same place. It’s easy to reduce “Aristotle and Dante” to a queer coming-of-age story, but as told, it’s also one of the most well-rounded teen movies around.