As well as being an enduring form of cinema over the years, the road movie has proved to be a versatile one that crosses mainstream and arthouse boundaries. For his first full-length feature - academy ratio, black-and-white and very much in the arthouse category - Alonso Ruizpalacios finds that he doesn't even have to travel too much distance to cover a lot of ground in Güeros . His protagonists are constantly on the move, run into all kinds of adventures, incidents and obstacles along the way, seeming to descend into hell and then travel to heaven, but in reality they don't actually leave Mexico City.
The incidents that lead Tomás and his brother Federico to take to the road are complicated, but the purpose of their journey is simple enough. Conventional even. Teenager Tomás has gotten into some trouble in his hometown and has been sent down to live with his brother Fede - also known as Sombra (the shadow) - who is studying at university in Mexico City. Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) is fair-skinned, while Sombra (Tenoch Huerta) is a dark-skinned Mexican, but although this discrepancy is often referred to, it's never really explained. The students at the university are out on strike, Sombra and his friend Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) have no electricity in their apartment, and for one reason or another, they end up in a car in search of an elusive aging musician, Epigmenio Cruz.
Tomás carries a cassette tape of his around with him, a memento of his father. The music of Epigmenio Cruz means a lot to both Tomás and his brother, and it seems to have a magical impact on anyone who hears it, legend even having it that he once made Bob Dylan cry. Learning that Epigmenio has been admitted to hospital and having for the moment nowhere else to go, Tomás, Sombra and Santos go in search of this legendary musician, stopping off at the Mexico City university complex along the way to pick up Ana (Ilse Salas), Sombra's student pirate-radio activist kind-of-girlfriend. The journey, needless to say, is an eventful one.
The purpose of the journey may be fairly conventional, and the results of the quest not entirely surprising, but it proves to be a necessary and a strong enough thread to hold the film together and prevent it from being as whimsical as Temporada de patos (Duck Season), another Mexican film with which it bears some superficial similarities. Otherwise the film's free-flowing narrative, swaying camera work, first-person perspectives and occasional flights into surreal imagery (during Fede's panic attacks) could indeed add up to little more than a showcase of quirky characters getting caught up in bizarre situations filmed with arty film techniques.
It's admittedly not immediately obvious what the purpose of the film is and it can seem quite random in its targets. The title of the film for example, along with the contrasting skin tones of brothers Tomás and Sombra, presents the issue of race as an underlying topic and "güero", meaning blond-haired and fair-skinned, is a word thrown around quite frequently as a term of abuse. Class, race and social tensions are evident also whenever any of the diverse groups come into contact with one another, with even the seemingly progressive striking students resorting to infighting and sexist name-calling. With the social satire, a certain Bande à part new wave playfulness to the proceedings and the film occasionally even stepping outside itself to poke fun at Mexican filmmaking, there's definitely a Jean-Luc Godard influence in there.
Alonso Ruizpalacios however refuses to let whimsy, self-reflexivity or a ready-made agenda deflect Güeros from taking its own distinctive path. It seems over-ambitious for a first feature film, but when you look over Güeros in its totality it's clear what that purpose is. Being a road movie of course, it's not so much the destination that is important as the journey. And remember, the journey here doesn't stretch beyond Mexico City. Along the way, from Tomás to Sombra, from the students protesting and the young cool hip filmakers in their exclusive night clubs, from the hell of gangs and kids on the streets to the glimpses of a garden of Eden paradise seen through Fede's fingers at the zoo, Güeros is simply (or not so simply) an attempt to capture the rich diversity of the sights, sounds, sensations and the side-by-side surreality of the social make-up of Mexico City itself. That's a good topic for a debut feature from an exciting young Mexican director, and it's one that makes a strong impression.