Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Puente is superb."

The day before it happens, Andy (Emilio Puente) is having an argument with his mum about the cape his dad gave him. She thinks he's too old for dressing up, but it makes him feel stronger. At school the next day, listening to other kids shouting homophobic insults in the playground, he huddles up against a wall. Perhaps his mum doesn't understand why, but she realises she's made a mistake, and she takes him to the shops to buy a new one. But before he can put it on, before he's ready to be a hero, bad guys charge into the café where they're eating, and shoot her.

Traumatised, angry and confused, Andy is left without an adult to take care of him. He's bundled into a car and driven far from the familiar surroundings of Mexico City, taken to a remote house in Cuernavaca. It's his dad's place but his dad isn't there. He travels a lot, explains his grandmother (played by the redoubtable Carmen Maura). Something about the way she says it makes Andy suspicious from the start, but he does his best to cope, befriending his aunt Dhaly (Dulce Dominguez), who has Down syndrome and a shed full of kittens, making himself useful in the garden, and letting himself be distracted by the gardener.

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There's a stage in life where one still isn't quite ready for sexual feelings but where encountering physical beauty can be overwhelming. Charly (Diego Alvarez Garcia) is the sort of youth who might easily spend his spare time appearing in diet coke ads. All lean, toned muscle and notable absence of shirt, he makes the art of gardening look like pornography. Andy is immediately fascinated by him. But Charly has a lot of growing up of his own to do. Casually exploitative in the way that comes all too easily to good looking young men, he strings the boy along, at times showing real sympathy, at times using him as a means of getting money, drawing him into petty crime. It's all the easier to do because no-one - except perhaps Dhaly, who has learned that it's not much use trying to assert herself - really seems to be paying attention to his needs.

With his father proving equally problematic when he finally arrives on the scene, Andy has to find his own way through life at a particularly difficult time. Puente is superb in the role, showing us his grief and inner conflict but also the subtler emotions that accompany developing awareness of how broken the world is. There's a sense that, for Andy, life will always be difficult, and he needs to develop new superpowers to cope with it, caped or not.

The narrative plays out in the lush surroundings of the gardens and family orchards, where Andy helps pick fruit to make famous Cuernavaca jams - regarding which Dhaly has her own ambitions. The enormity of this landscape and its lack of any clear horizons echoes the boy's plight. Trips to the local funfair add to the sense of disorientation. Puente appears in almost every scene and provides a fragile point of focus as the world swirls around him.

With gorgeous cinematography and a beautiful melodic score, Cuernavaca is an enchanting piece of work.

Reviewed on: 23 Jul 2018
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After his mother is shot, a boy is sent to stay in the country with his absent father's family, where he encounters temptation and struggles to find his identity.

Director: Alejandro Andrade

Writer: Alejandro Andrade

Starring: Emilio Puente, Moises Arizmendi, Mariana Gajá, Carmen Maura

Year: 2017

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: Mexico


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