This year has already seen a wealth of authentic feeling, stylish screen drama centred on the teenage experience, with the likes of Euphoria and Share examining life in present day USA and now This Is Berlin takes us back to 1980s Mexico City.
Xabiani Ponce de León stars as seventeen year-old Carlos, a highschooler unimpressed by the regular mass fist fights his classmates get involved in with local rival teens. The film opens in the midst of a visceral slow motion fight scene, with Carlos standing static at its centre, before he conveniently faints and thus escapes getting caught up in the scuffle. Immediately we sense that he’s not like the other boys, he’s searching for some deeper meaning to his existence.
There’s a beautiful, initially carefree friendship between Carlos and his classmate Gera (José Antonio Toledano) at the heart of This Is Not Berlin, with delicately layered, compelling performances from both actors throughout. There’s a sense of immediacy and immersion in Alfredo Altamirano’s cinematography with its lightness and vivid colours, which luxuriates in the simple pleasure of the young men spending time in each other’s presence and the minor transgression they enjoy smoking cigarettes side by side. It’s a lot of fun watching the pair’s entrepreneurial skills at work as they run a thriving business renting Gera’s father’s porn magazines to the boys at school.
Carlos has a close relationship with his cool uncle who takes him for motorcyle rides and introduces him to his favourite music, relieving the regular gloom of the teen’s home-life with a severely depressed mother, an absent father, and the annoyance of a younger brother demanding his attention.
Escaping home, high school and the confines of what he sees as a conventional freindship, Carlos begins to explore his burgeoning sexual and creative identities in Mexico City’s underground art and music scenes. As Carlos begins going to hip nightclub Aztec (where he asks if it’s a gay club and is told “it’s an everything club”) and parties, experiments with alcohol and drugs, there’s a heightened sense of intensity as he witnesses and experiences these things for the first time. Music, sex, art and political views in this new milieu Carlos quickly finds himself in are all complicated by the emergence of HIV/AIDS which enters the film as Carlos finds out about it.
As Carlos throws himself into the centre of angry political art demonstrations indented to contrast with the branded, sanitised public image of a World Cup host city ‘Mexico 86’, he gets closer to the pretentious Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro) and distances himself from his true friend Gera.
This Is Not Berlin is saturated with period details like He-Man action toys, glimpses of animated TV shows, economy size pots of hair gel, a stunning 80s soundtrack, and of course the backdrop of the World Cup, which immerse us in 1986 without distracting or fetishising.
Director Hari Sama delivers a potent, seductively exhilarating and intoxicating cinematic experience that captures a coming of age summer, rich with pleasure, pain and confusion.
By James Kleinmann
THIS IS NOT BERLIN is playing in New York now and opens in Los Angeles on Friday 23rd August 2019 with a rollout to follow.