One of the standout queer films at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was writer-director Aitch Alberto’s adaptation of Benjamin Alire Sáenz bestselling YA novel, Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe. Produced by Alberto, alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eugenio Debrez, and Kyra Sedgwick, the emotionally potent coming-of-age tale explores the bond that builds between two Mexican-American teenagers, Ari (Max Pelayo) and Dante (Reese Gonzales), as they are each discovering the world and themselves in El Paso, Texas in 1987. The impressive cast also includes Derbez, Veronica Falcón, Eva Longoria, Kevin Alejandro, and Marlene Forte.
Raised in Miami, Florida, Alberto is a Sundance Episodic Lab fellow and an Outfest Screenwriting Lab alum. She was included on The Black List’s inaugural Latinx List, Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch for 2022 list, and Indiewire’s 22 Rising Female Filmmakers to Watch in 2022. She has written on the BAFTA-nominated AppleTV+ anthology series Little America and the upcoming HBO Max series Duster, a 1970s-set crime drama from J.J. Abrams and LaToya Morgan.
Following the world premiere of Aristotle and Dante in Toronto, Aitch Alberto spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about the impact that the novel had on her, casting the film’s young leads, her resistance to depicting anti-LGBTQ+ violence on screen, her commitment to portraying parental acceptance, and the trans women in entertainment who inspire her.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: what did it mean to you to have the film premiere at TIFF?
Aitch Alberto: “Hving it premiere at TIFF was so exciting and really special. To have so many people who I love and who were a part of the movie there was the cherry on the cake. It was also a big exhale because it’s been a seven plus year journey to get here.”
When did you first encounter Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel and what impact did it have on you?
“It was back in 2014 and I read it in one sitting. It unlocked something in me that I can’t ever put into words. It set me on a journey that has quite literally changed my life, not only creatively but personally too. I went through my transition while trying to make this film. It was an important piece of art that accompanied me on my journey to my authenticity, which is such a reflection of what the story is. When I started the process of making the film I was delusional, telling myself that I was already being authentic, but in reality I was always an Ari until I landed on my true self and who I really am. Finally owning my authenticity is what made me capable of directing this film.”
At what point did you see the cinematic potential in it?
“Instantly as I was reading it, that was part of what drew me to it. I thought, this has to be a movie. I saw it so clearly. The novel is written in such a visual way, so it wasn’t it hard to imagine what it would look like. Movies have always been an escape for me and they’re part of the way I think.”
I love the soundtrack, which includes one of my favourite songs, “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat. You didn’t just pick songs that would place us in the 80s, but they also have something to say as well.
“I often write to music and music is such an important part of my writing and the texture of the stories that I want to tell. A lot of the songs were already in the script, but some came later. There is always the movie you write, the movie you shoot, and then the movie edit where you’re finding new moments. That’s where “Smalltown Boy” came in. Ari’s voiceover was a way to place us in that world and I thought that was a perfect song to mirror who he is and his queerness and all of what that song means to me. It’s very fitting to the time, the place, and the character, and that was how I approached every music choice. Where Ari is emotionally on his journey is reflected in the music. It wasn’t only about the 80s, it was about how it mirrors where he is and what’s unlocked inside of him. The music is very different after he meets Dante, in terms of what he’s hearing and what he listens to on his own and the influence of having an older family. It was really fun to explore and play with the music and I had an amazing music supervisor working with me, Adam Bennati.”
There’s a beautiful score too.
“Can you believe that Isabella Summers, who is the Machine from Florence and the Machine, did the score on my film?!”
How did that come about?
“Through Adam Bennati. I’m such a fan of Isabella’s and she had a real understanding of what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to create a soft visual tone while reflecting Ari’s internal struggle through the score. That internal aspect was one of the big challenges of making the film. Ari’s struggle is such an internalized experience, which I think a lot of queer people will be able to relate to. The music was really important to help us get inside his head.”
Max conveys that so well doesn’t he? It’s very subtle.
“Max and Reese are both the essence of who these characters are—they’re differently evolved than the boys that we meet in the film—but that’s a big part of why I cast them. They can authentically speak to the experience of whatever that is for them. It’s not exactly what Ari is going through, but it’s similar to what Max could bring to the table.”
The deep friendship and relationship that builds between Ari and Dante is at the heart of the film. What did you enjoy about putting Max and Dante together as actors?
“There wouldn’t be a movie without the right two boys, that was a big part of getting us the green light. I had an open call and I saw so many people and so many tapes, but I had met Reese early on. I did a live reading of the script and he read for Dante, so he was always Dante in my head. When I met Max, and when I first saw his tape, he was Ari right away. So I knew those two boys were meant to be Dante and Max from the beginning, but you have to make sure that your instincts are not lying to you.”
What did you want to explore about perceptions of masculinity and how that can lead to transphobia and internalized homophobia?
“It’s the root of so much phobia, right? I think it’s partly about the way we speak to men and what we expect from men. We have a lot of work to do. I wanted to tell a story that’s deeply masculine but also soft, with a more empathetic and compassionate lens than we’re used to seeing, especially when it comes to Latinx stories, where men are often portrayed as violent and in a way that’s leaning into stereotypes and tropes. I really wanted to show the opposite of that in a way that felt natural to my experience and the experiences of the people around me whom I love.”
Something else that subverts expectations is how accepting the parents of these boys are.
“That’s from the book, and including that aspect was always a struggle with the potential producers who I met with, they wanted me to lean into the trope that we’ve seen when it comes to queer stories, especially Latino stories. But having this representation exist moves the needle. Like, ‘Oh, wait, I could love my son and still be deeply who I am’. It’s a goal in my career to redefine gender and redefine what masculinity looks like, so I hope that this is the beginning of that.”
The parents might be accepting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s any less of a struggle for the kids to accept themselves, particularly given the increase in prejudice during the height of the AIDS crisis, and even where we are today too.
“Exactly. Some people are like, ‘It’s not realistic’. Of course it’s not, but it’s creating the fantasy of showing that it’s a possibility and we can make the decision to change that. That’s why I fought really hard to not compromise that when it came to that aspect of the story, it was incredibly important to me. I’m so exhausted of seeing violence against queer people on film. We filmed Dante’s gay bashing and when I watched it I was like, I can’t do this trauma porn anymore. We’ve seen so much of that, but we haven’t seen a queer kid beat up his assailant, so I’m okay with that version of the story. When it comes to violence and stories about gay kids, I don’t want to perpetuate the the narrative that we’ve seen over and over again.”
Similarly, when it comes to the transphobic attack and murder, another filmmaker might have made that a flashback sequence, what were your thoughts on approaching that part of the narrative?
“We’re still living in that. There have been at least 32 trans people killed this year, most of whom were Black and Latinx trans women. We’re still living in what Barnardo’s decision in this story was and it’s an internalized struggle that a lot of men who are transamorous go through. For obvious reasons, I can’t bring myself to see that and I think it’s far more powerful to imagine something, especially when it’s so real already, than to see it. It would have been redundant and unnecessary to what the heart and the truth of the story is.”
What were your inspirations when it came to the look of the film?
“Visually it was inspired by Stand By Me, The Virgin Suicides, and Badlands.”
Lastly, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“I’m deeply inspired by the trans women in my life; Rain Valdez, Zackary Drucker, and Trace Lysette. They’re all friends and people I admire in a deep way and aspire to be like. Anything that they’ve done before or they’re still doing is on my list. I’m actually working with Zackary on something that’s deeply inspiring to me.”
There’s a real sense that you are lifting each other up as trans women in the industry, rather than there being competition between you.
“There’s no competition, there’s room for all of us. We are lifting each other up and we’re each other’s biggest motivators because there’s not a lot of us and the only way that we’ll excel, whether it be in the Latino community or in our transness, is by uniting and holding each other’s hands.”
By James Kleinmann
Aitch Alberto’s Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe received its world premiere at TIFF 2022 and opens in US theaters on Friday, September 8th, 2023.