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Sometimes the only way to understand reality is to explore it in a dream. Güeros distills the chaotic turmoil of Mexico City in 1999 to a road movie with a surrealist edge. It touches on real issues like student strikes and class disparity, but does so with whimsical flexibility and self-aware humor.

The movie shifts gears with delightful fluidity. The narrative propulsion isn’t necessarily clear, or logical, or consistent, but writer/director Alonso Ruizpalacios never runs out of places to go. The characters may not have any direction, but if you weren’t going anywhere in particular, they’d make fine travel companions.

Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre), an angry, troublemaking teenager, comes to Mexico City after he wreaks too much havoc at home in the country. His mom sends him to spend time with his older brother, Federico (Tenoch Huerta), who’s supposed to be studying. However, students shut down the university to protest tuition hikes, so he’s aimless and broke while his education waits in limbo. Disillusioned with the strike, he mostly lazes around, sometimes tricking his neighbors’ young daughter into helping him steal their electricity. Sometimes he mopes while listening to the student-activist pirate radio, because he pines for the DJ, Ana (Ilse Salas).

Federico would be happy to embrace the ennui of his drab, powerless apartment, but his little brother insists on an adventure. Tomás spots a news item about Epigmenio Cruz, a would-be folk-rock legend whom no one has heard of except for the brothers and their late father, who regaled them with tales of how Cruz once made Bob Dylan cry. Little else is known about the mysterious musician, but his songs are Tomás’s only escapes from the turmoil of life—he listens to an old cassette on his Walkman.

Tomás learns that Cruz is dying, and wants to track down his musical hero. Fede resists, but his friend Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) backs Tomás, and the trio embark on an odyssey to nowhere in particular.

The journey doesn’t lead to the sort of revelations you might expect from coming-of-age stories. There are moments of real drama, but the intent isn’t to assault the audience with teachable lessons. It’s to show what can be gained through shared experiences and friendship.

Ruizpalacios uses formal, static shots when the characters are stuck in the apartment building, and moves to handheld shots and jumpier editing once they start moving around. It’s the most effective of the first-time director’s many stylistic flourishes, which include self-reflexive moments that break the fourth wall and a symmetrically surreal structure. Shot in the old-school Academy aspect ratio (1.37:1) and shimmering black and white, the classic look further blurs the line between history (the events of 1999) and the present (smart phones can be seen).

Whatever supposed mission the characters are on at any given moment, title cards identify each section of the film by neighborhood, stressing the importance of the tour of the city. We see science, art and politics on the closed-down campus, crime and danger in the impoverished outskirts, and ridiculous decor at posh bars in the hip part of town.

The word “güeros” refers to fairer-skinned, blonde Mexicans, and Tomás in particular fits that description. The distinction is one of the ways the people of the city segregate themselves from one another, and that separation is also clear through what we see in different parts of town. Ruizpalacios and co-screenwriter Gibrán Viradi Ramírez Portela display an intimate connection with the city that makes even the less-engaging parts of the film fascinating for their anthropology.

Often, the only thing the characters get out of a location they’ve visited is a story. It could be a story that someone tells them, or it could be a new experience that they can one day tell others. The simple point of it all slowly becomes clear: If they’d just stayed at their apartment, they wouldn’t have had these small moments of deep personal meaning. They wouldn’t have connected with each other. The obscurity of Cruz is part of the point. Meeting a musical superstar like Dylan is the kind of experience that would impress anyone. Güeros is about moments that are special in a much more intimate manner.

Director: Alonso Ruizpalacios
Writers: Alonso Ruizpalacios and Gibrán Viradi Ramírez Portela
Starring: Tenoch Huerta, Sebastián Aguirre, Ilse Salas, Leonardo Ortizgris
Release Date: May 20, 2015