When the poignant, defiantly hopeful sound of Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat kicked in early on in writer-director Aitch Alberto’s Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe, I settled deep down into my seat at TIFF, strongly suspecting that given that music choice I was going to love the rest of the film. Not only is it one of the finest songs about an aspect of the queer (and human) experience, of feeling stifled and misunderstood and needing to escape, but the perfect way to introduce us to sixteen-year-old Aristotle Mendoza (Max Pelayo).
It’s the summer of 1987 in El Paso, Texas, and Ari is spending his days alone at the outdoor pool, telling his mother Liliana (Ozark’s Veronica Falcón) and father Jaime (Eugenio Derbez) that’s he’s taking swimming lessons, but he’s actually unsuccessfully attempting to teach himself. He feels despondent and isolated, both at school—where he’s distanced himself from the other kids because he doesn’t fit in—as well at home, where the permanent elephant in the room has created an emotional rift and is causing increasing family tension. Ari’s brother is in prison; his photographs have been taken down and he’s never mentioned. Without knowing any of the details of what happened, Ari fears that he’ll become like his absent sibling or turn into his uncommunicative mailman father. One day at the pool, emerging through a sun-drenched haze like a teenage dream, Dante Quintana (Reese Gonzales) enters Ari’s life.
Ari and fellow teen Dante quickly become inseparable and spend the rest of the summer together, with Dante teaching Ari to swim and introducing him to his favourite poetry and music, as the they share their philosophies on life and their thoughts about their shared Mexican American identities. At one point they drive out into the desert, away from the city’s light pollution, to take in the stars on an idyllic camping trip with Dante’s more cultured middle class parents, Soledad (Eva Longoria) and Sam (Kevin Alejandro), who welcome Ari into their family.
With a screenplay based on Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel, Alberto captures the heightened emotions of teenagehood and the thrill of discovering so much for the first time, as well as the powerful connection that builds when you’re sharing that discovery with a best friend, and in Ari’s case, an only friend. Their love is palpable and the way that they look at one another suggests that there’s a mutual attraction that goes beyond friendship. Akis Konstantakopoulos’ cinematography beautifully conveys the building intimacy between the boys and the joy that Dante has brought to Ari’s life, and we can almost feel that El Paso summer heat coming off the screen. But, as Bananarama reminds us on the soundtrack—another excellent music choice—summer can be cruel, and it can’t last forever. This one comes to an abrupt end with Sam being offered a position at a university in Chicago and taking the family away with him for a year, reducing Dante and Ari to penpals. Having become so invested in their blossoming friendship, it’s gutting to see them separated and Ari return to feeling isolated as the school year starts up again.
Still in Chicago, Dante bravely comes out to Ari in one of his letters to him, uncertain how it will affect their friendship when he returns the following summer, while Ari begins to spend time with some of the girls at his school. As we see Ari at home surrounded by his extended family at a large gathering, but feeling disconnected from them, there are echoes of The Graduate in Konstantakopoulos’ skillful camerawork that keeps us moving around the house with the young protagonist. There is real warmth and acceptance though from his Tia Ophelia played by the wonderful Marlene Forte (Hypochondriac, upcoming You Can’t Stay Here) who establishes the special bond that she has with her nephew in limited screen time. Suggesting that she knows him better than he knows himself, or is willing to admit, she gives Ari a condom wrapped up in a roll of cash that she hands him. This is at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the US, and Ari catches a glimpse of his parents watching ACT UP activist Peter Staley on the TV news, talking about the group’s latest urgent action in a year when Reagan had finally made his first major speech addressing the pandemic. It’s a backdrop that’s crucial to the film in its exploration of the violent repercussions of the intense homophobia amplified by reactions to AIDS by politicians and the media, and how toxic masculinity and internalized-homophobia can manifest itself in extreme ways with tragic consequences.
Alberto immerses us in the late 1980s without fetishizing the period—the music helps of course—as does the beautifully detailed but restrained production design by Denise Hudson and costumes by Donna Lisa Gonzalez. Although some of the dialogue in a couple of the later scenes might have benefitted from a little finessing, it always feels truthful and the universally strong cast helps to elevate it. Pelayo has a magnetic charm as Ari, and that James Dean, old-beyond-his-years vibe that’s perfect for this brooding teen, he also really engages with his characterful voice overs. There’s great chemistry between him and the adorable Gonzales, who brings a natural, uninhibited exuberance to Dante that’s makes for an impactful counterpoint to the later more troubling scenes. The film’s ending is somewhat open-ended, with the consequences of Ari’s actions unresolved, but rather than detracting from this emotionally potent film it adds a further layer of complexity to a nuanced, powerful coming-of-age tale that’s as unsettling as it is uplifting. I was welling up throughout, and my first instinct was right, I did love it. Aristotle and Dante deserves to be seen by a wide audience, and with high-profile and supportive producers such as Hamilton writer Lin-Manuel Miranda and Kyra Sedgwick (who recently produced queer horror They/Them) attached, it should get noticed at TIFF.
By James Kleinmann
Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe received its world premiere at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, September 9th 2022, and screens again in-person at TIFF on September 11th and 15th, with a digital TIFF screening available in Canada on September 13th. For more details and tickets head to the official TIFF website.