Directed and Written by: Aitch Alberto
Starring: Max Pelayo, Reese Gonzales, Eugenio Derbez
Based on the popular book of the same name by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, this first-time feature by director Aitch Alberto tackle’s heavy themes of teen sexuality, family and homophobia to good effect.
In El Paso 1987, the narrative follows teen Aristotle “Ari” (Max Pelayo), who meets fellow teen Dante (Reese Gonzales) and they strike up a friendship together. Soon they are both aware of their sexual preferences as well as their deeper feelings for each other, which spurs on drama and growth for them both.
The script does well in condensing a 392-page book into 95 minutes. It does not feel breezed through or underdeveloped. That being said, there are a couple of tangents that would feel more natural in a book that stick out somewhat in the story. Also, the film for the most part is a bit light on drama for the first two acts, however this does eventually change and make the lighter beginning more understandable in hindsight.
Character-wise, Ari is on the stoic, withdrawn and even aggressive side, but the film is good at putting you in his perspective and making you understand his situation, mindset and inner conflict. Dante is rather likeable and the two make for a sweet pairing that is helped by the strong acting and chemistry of the two leading actors. The parents of each of the two teens also stand out in being supportive and not forced to be dramatically opposed to them.
As mentioned, first time lead actors Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales have good chemistry together and individually they both impress. Reese’s vocal cadence and Max’s physical acting are both the standouts of their performances. Elsewhere, Eugenio Derbez and Verónica Falcón as Ari’s parents shine in an understated but touching performances.
The direction and cinematography are bright and appealing, not to mention handled with tastefulness that naturally veers into drama and even intensity. The subtle stylistic choices make sense for the scenes they appear in and look good, with one extremely handheld cam shot scene adding to the moment’s power and impact. Director Aitch Alberto is part of the LGBT community herself, so it is clear that she understands how to present gay characters in a human and sensitive way without falling into easy shock tactics like brutal depictions of hate crimes.
Finally, the soundtrack, full of 80’s songs, is well utilised and not just fitting in immersing the audience into the time period but also is not pushed too far into being overbearing to the point of self-indulgence. The production design is also subtle and not a caricature of the decade, whilst still being accurate.
In conclusion, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe will hopefully be enjoyed by fans of the book and newcomers looking for a teen love story. It is well executed and moving, not to mention a good calling card for its director and lead actors.