Papi Chulo

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Papi Chulo
"Beautifully written and sensitively directed." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

Weather presenters today are no longer what they were, says Sean (Matt Bomer), who drifted into the job by accident. They used to know all sorts of things. Now they really don't any more. He, certainly, is struggling to make sense of the world. The winds that drove him are suddenly gone, leaving him becalmed. When he breaks down on air, the small team at the TV station are sympathetic but also have to protect their professional reputation. They encourage him to take some time off, to talk to someone, to get himself sorted out.

Up in his spacious home in the hills, he feels no better. He's clearing away the last of the things that belonged to Carlos, and doing so only makes his loneliness worse. Down by the hardware store, he engages Latino migrant Ernesto (Alejandro PatiƱo) to paint the decking at his house that was damaged by Carlos' tree; but sitting at his laptop whilst the stranger sands down the boards, he is overcome by the need for human contact. So he begins to take Ernesto on a series of adventures - boating, hiking, attending a party, all the time paying him by the hour - just so that he can immerse himself in the experience of having a friend. Just so that he can talk, even though Ernesto has very little English and he laboriously mispronounces his few words of Spanish.

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There's a sweetness about this that's reminiscent of the scenes that everyone forgets in Fatal Attraction, where we see, briefly, how much doing lighthearted everyday things means to the woman it turns into a villain. Although Papi Chulo strikes a very different tone it's worth keeping this in mind because Sean, increasingly, behaves like a stalker. The befuddled labourer is sympathetic but alert to the strangeness of it all and the emotional precarity of the situation. There's fine deadpan comedy in his telephone conversations with his wife, who is convinced that Sean must be falling in love with him. Fellow workers tease him about his unmanly pursuits. It requires some genuine affection - something more than money can buy - to bear with this, but can their awkward bond survive the pressures that are building up inside Sean?

Beautifully written and sensitively directed by John Butler, Papi Chulo connects its story of individual loneliness to larger cultural issues. Sean is a popular guy with lots of friends, but social circles that revolve around who's dating who don't seem to offer much support when what he really needs is friendship, and there are hints that this is not the first time he's found himself falling into damaging patterns of behaviour as a result. Ernesto, by contrast, has a rich community life built around family and neighbourhood friendships. In a brief conversation about fears, he says that what scares him is immigration officials, something that puts Sean's expressed concerns in sharp perspective, yet Ernesto can see from the start that there's more going on than that. He transcends the magical minority figure archetype because we clearly see that he has a story of his own and because he's aware that he can't save Sean. The connection they form exists in spite of that.

Bomer's initially superficial, Valley-bright performance reveals painful depths as the story unspools, whilst the apparent liberalism of West Coast culture peels back to reveal the underlying racist assumptions that Ernesto has to deal with every day. Yet for all its heartbreaking moments, this remains an optimistic film. Its absurdity often makes room for laughter and it's full of small moments where situations that could go really badly are recovered because the people we met are basically well-intentioned towards each other. Butler brings a delicate touch to both tragedy and comedy and the result is a genuinely heartwarming film.

Reviewed on: 17 Jul 2019
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A TV weatherman in an emotional crisis strikes up a platonic friendship with a married migrant worker.


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