Resentful at the world, 15-year-old Aristotle Mendoza wants to blend in and be left alone, but the summer he meets free spirit Dante Quintana at the local swimming pool, everything changes. Dante is everything Ari isn’t, and his wanderlust for life and artistic spirit shake something loose in Ari; finally, he has a friend. A near magical being, Dante disrupts Aristotle’s world, introducing him to music, poetry, and lessons about the sky. Dante gives Aristotle permission to live in an ever expansive universe, making it harder and harder for him to maintain the façade of isolation that has protected him for so long. Their summer of adventure comes to an abrupt halt when the boys are torn apart. Armed with a new perspective, Aristotle uses Dante’s absence to understand who he wants to be in the world. Ari must decide if he is going to live in the world of infinite possibilities that Dante represents. At first fear holds Aristotle hostage and he retreats into his lonely existence. But Ari soon realizes he can’t unsee the world through Dante’s eyes. If only he would let go of the secrets he didn’t even know he was keeping and embrace the wonders of the universe.
The sense of wandering, the confusion of the teen years, fixating and establishing your true sexual identity gets a fascinating Mexican slant in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
This is probably the most faithful note by note, beat by beat adaptation I’ve seen this year. Next to nothing has been changed from the same titled Benjamin Alire Saenz YA source novel. Aitch Alberto, a notable short and music video director making her debut, wrote the screenplay in collaboration with Saenz. Lin Manuel Miranda who voiced the audiobook version is a producer. The novel’s original cover illustrator, Sarah J. Coleman designed the film’s title credits. Reese Gonzalez, who read the part of Dante at the first live reading, is also reprising his role here. The fingerprints of those who loved and worked with it are all over the film. Those who loved it, knew it, and how to make it good and quick.
The cultural dynamics are not of the old parochial Mexican culture. Those are yielding to a newer dynamic that rebels and adopts the multicultural awareness of the upward mobility aspects of the American dream. The old intolerant ways exist mainly off scream: the rumors spread about the roommate history of a liberated, almost uncloseted aunt, the imprisoned brother who killed a transvestite prostitute in a bare fisted discovery rage. The ending is telegraphed well before it happens in order to prepare for the gay happy ending that the two deserve, and who are aptly named after a philosopher and poet of acceptance, Aristotle (Max Pelayo) and Dante (Reese Gonzalez).
That philosopher poet parallel is echoed in the two boys respective households. Dante’s parents live in an upper middle class bliss of social consciousness. The father (Kevin Alejandro) is a literature professor and the mother (Eva Longoria) an aspiring artist. Aristotle’s lower middle class heritage, is solemn, loving, and because of the brother’s past and desolate future and the aunt’s community ostracism, also very accepting of Aristotle’s blooming gay identity. The father (Eugenio Debrez) is a mail carrier and the mother a housewife (Veronica Falcon) The only hitch is the need for Aristotle and Dante to overcome the social objections and the doubt in themselves as to who they truly are.
Pelayo naturalism as Aristotle contrasts and complements Gonzalez’s self awareness. It works as slow burn romance filled with the usual separations and complications, that manages to smooth out the film’s sometimes obvious social conscious agenda. But Aristotle and Dante, with its echoes of a famous Shakespeare long form love poem, is meant to linger in its beautiful romantic angst.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe gets a 3.5 out of 5 or a B+. It streams on Hoopla which is free with a library card in most major metropolitan areas.
- Stefanie Visser
- September 9, 2022(TIFF)
- September 8, 2023(United States)