It takes Aristotle (Max Pelayo) almost the entirety of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe to express how he really feels. For most of the 90-plus-minute run time, he hems and haws, as terrified of being seen as he is of going ignored. When he finally reveals himself, it comes as a hard-won moment of catharsis, a cool rain piercing through after days of unsettling heat.
It also makes for an odd sort of irony. Because while Aristotle might prefer to keep himself bottled up, Aristotle and Dante, from its opening moments, is a film so anxious to be understood that it can’t seem to stop getting in its own way. It tells when it could show, shouts when it could whisper, underlines its own themes in blunt lines of dialogue — and in its rush to explain itself, Aristotle and Dante denies us too much of the thrill of getting to unlock its sweet pleasures for ourselves.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
The Bottom Line
An earnest love story that can’t help getting in its own way.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Cast: Max Pelayo, Reese Gonzales, Eugenio Derbez, Eva Longoria, Veronica Falcón, Kevin Alejandro
Director-screenwriter: Aitch Alberto
Based on the acclaimed YA bestseller by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, the drama centers on two Mexican American teenagers in late-’80s El Paso. Aristotle is a working-class loner simmering with a quiet rage and resentment he himself doesn’t entirely understand, which we learn because he basically describes himself as such in the overlong opening voiceover.
Bored one stifling summer day, he goes for a dip in the community pool and surfaces to find newcomer Dante (Reese Gonzalez) peering down at him, looking positively angelic in the sunlight. Where Ari is angst and self-doubt, Dante, the son of a relatively well-to-do academic couple (Kevin Alejandro and Eva Longoria), is all sweetness and light — a veritable manic pixie dream boy, down to his cutesy habit of going barefoot whenever possible.
The bond they form is intense and immediate. Perhaps too much so, even for a narrative built on an instant connection: Writer-director Aitch Alberto shoves them together so insistently that we’re barely allowed to get to know them as individuals first, or to savor the heady process by which interest becomes fondness becomes something like profound, lasting love. In the whirlwind, her young leads — both relative newcomers — struggle to find their footing. Pelayo is a champion brooder, but is let down by a script short on nuance and depth. And Gonzales struggles in the first half of the film to construct a plausible human being out of a Natalie-Portman-in-Garden–State-sized collection of aggressively adorable quirks.
In fairness, Aristotle and Dante has a lot of plot to cover. Its narrative stretches over an entire year, staying with Aristotle as Dante moves away at the end of the summer of ’87 to move back in the summer of ’88. In the interim, Dante’s presence is reduced to letters to Aristotle that we hear in voiceovers, chronicling a fraught and sometimes painfully lonely journey of self-discovery. Meanwhile, Aristotle has plenty on his mind besides his distant best friend. We watch as he gets a job, meets a girl, wonders darkly what really happened to the incarcerated brother that his parents (Eugenio Derbez and Veronica Falcón) refuse to talk about at all.
These developments in their lives feel halfhearted, perhaps because Aristotle and Dante seems more interested in who these people are together than who they might be apart. Subplots about Dante’s ambivalence toward his own Mexican identity or Aristotle’s contempt toward his (seemingly friendly) classmates are developed so haphazardly I can only assume they’re relics from the source material that got hacked to bits in translation.
But Aristotle and Dante finally gets back on track with Dante’s return midway through. Gonzales’ performance grows sturdier once he’s given more emotional heft to play, and his chemistry with Pelayo gains intriguing new layers as the connection between them starts to evolve in ways that neither (but especially the repressed Aristotle) is prepared to confront.
For all its fumbles, I found Aristotle and Dante to inspire more indulgence than annoyance. For one thing, it’s plainly lovely to look at. Cinematographer Akis Konstantakopoulos has a knack for capturing the self-assured majesty of Texas’ austere deserts and limitless skies. The loveliness of the scenery makes for a more convincing reflection of the contentment the pair find in one another than the frequently clunky dialogue does. In one of the picture’s most striking scenes, the friends dance giddily in a sudden downpour as raindrops glitter like diamonds on their car windshield.
It’s a moment of pure, untroubled joy in two lives thirsty for more of them. Reagan-era Texas serves as the fraught backdrop for the characters’ exploration of their sexualities, as emphasized through mentions of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes and background news reports about the AIDS crisis, and the boys do not escape unscathed. But Aristotle and Dante treats their fear and anger and worry with compassion, and so do a surprising number of the supporting characters. “I can’t stand watching the loneliness inside you,” Aristotle hears from someone he’d never expected to confide in, and on hearing his pain spoken out loud, he looks as though he’s been relieved of a burden he didn’t realize he was carrying.
Indeed, Aristotle and Dante‘s faults seem to stem, in large part, from a surplus of that same tenderness. That renders its flaws easy to forgive, or at least easy to want to forgive: If it jumps too eagerly to explain itself, it’s with the protectiveness of a parent desperate to shield her child from a judgmental or unforgiving world. But the shield that protects is the same shield that obscures. Aristotle and Dante has glimmers of beauty, and its story contains the potential for far more. If only it had been allowed the space to truly shine.