Essays · Movies

‘Y Tu Mamá También’: A Eulogy to Adolescence

20 years later, Alfonso Cuarón’s film remains one of the most honest and sobering portrayals of the journey from adolescence to adulthood.
Y Tu Mama Tambien
IFC Films
By  · Published on March 8th, 2022

There are a number of threads that connect the best coming-of-age movies. To name a few, there’s the enlightened mentor, at least one epiphany, and of course, an abrupt and anticlimactic ending. We famously see this last device in Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me, when a voiceover impassively announces a characters’ tragic end. We also witness it in the iconically nebulous final freeze-frame of François Truffaut’s somber ode to youth The 400 Blows, as well as the grim, blunt ending of Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants.

But perhaps the most significant implementation of this jarring device exists in Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también. The film follows best friends Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna), who, while their girlfriends travel abroad, invite a beautiful and inscrutable older woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú) on a road trip to a mystical beach called Boca de Cielo (Heaven’s Mouth). When Luisa unexpectedly says yes, the three embark on a multiple-day road trip through scenic Oaxaca.

If the coming-of-age blueprint promises anything, it’s that it will transport its characters through necessary change. And while it is only natural to hope that films in this category will yield a happy ending — that our protagonist will come out of the trials and tribulations of adolescence smarter and happier — many filmmakers understand that this kind of ending is merely wishful thinking. Sure, a happily-ever-after-style coming-of-age flick like Clueless or Sixteen Candles is uplifting and fun to watch, but, let’s face it: that’s not what growing up is really like.

Y tu mamá también is filled with so much childlike wonder, and such a vivid sense of hope, that it is only natural to expect that the immature Julio and Tenoch will return from their road trip having reached an emotional destination even more magnificent than the very Mouth of Heaven that they are seeking. But this is not the case. Instead, the moment the duo reach the end of their adventure, they’re hungover, disillusioned, and eager to return home. In fact, their journey back is so uneventful that the narrator doesn’t even bother going into any detail. Not only that, but the narrator also explains that Julio and Tenoch drift apart soon afterward. 

The final scene of the film sees the boys coincidentally bumping into one another in Mexico City and having a cup of coffee. Tenoch informs Julio that Luisa died of lung cancer shortly after they returned from Boca de Cielo. Once they go their separate ways, the narrator reveals that they never see each other again.

When it comes to dissatisfying endings, Y tu mamá también might take the cake. But what brings our once starry-eyed duo to such a state of disillusionment? The answer comes in the form of Luisa, who acts as the film’s coming-of-age mentor. Indeed, she is the driving force behind the boys’ trip: she is eager to reach Boca de Cielo; she provides Julio and Tenoch with new sexual experiences; perhaps most importantly, she encourages them to intensify their relationship with one another, both emotionally and physically.

What’s interesting about considering Luisa as a mentor, though, is that in a sense she is the mere manifestation of Julio and Tenoch’s desires. She makes real their naive, whimsical road trip, she plays into immature sexual fantasies by seducing them both, and she indulges their childish belief that their friendship will last forever by pushing their relationship to its very limits — into the realm of the physical, and even sexual.

And herein lies Y tu mamá también’s chief paradox: in nourishing the boys’ adolescent optimism, Luisa necessarily catapults them into adulthood. Throughout the film, Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki frame Luisa with an undeniably youthful demeanor. In one scene, the three dance together in a bar, and the camera follows them in a long, unbroken hand-held shot, which inhabits a dreamlike adolescent quality. He implements the same device when the trio finally reaches Boca de Cielo, and the camera glides buoyantly alongside Luisa as she looks at the water with a childlike wonder. When the trip finally ends, the camerawork is jarring in contrast. As Julio and Tenoch sit across from one another in the coffee shop, they are framed in stagnant medium shots, which seemingly strip their lives of the youthful momentum of a moving single-take.

How could a youthful mentor possibly hasten a person’s metamorphosis into adulthood? By pushing Julio and Tenoch deeper into their idealistic, childish lifestyle, Luisa helps them realize their perception of adolescence is skewed and, in turn, that the lifestyle of an adolescent is not really what they want. A large amount of this transformation is conveyed by the boys’ shifting relationships to sex. That Y tu mamá también begins with the boys having sex with their girlfriends indicates that sex is one of the most — if not the most — important things in their lives. From the outset, their attitudes toward sex are clear. While having sex, Julio continually requests that his girlfriend doesn’t sleep with Italian men while she’s abroad. For him, sex is about possession, about proving himself as a “man.”

Luisa fulfills both boys’ sexual fantasies with ease. She is free-spirited and comfortably promiscuous. The culmination of her sexual influence on the boys occurs near the end of Y tu mamá también when she guides Julio and Tenoch into kissing one another. This moment ultimately leads to a permanent rupture in the boys’ friendship, as they realize they are unable to look past the societal stigmas of such a close friendship. And so in encouraging the two to explore their sexualities, Luisa forces them to realize that a life of sex and adventure isn’t really what they thought it would be, or even what they want — nor is it all that easy. Once they have realized this, then the harsh realities of adulthood accordingly linger on the horizon. 

On a broader scale, Boca de Cielo is a perfect vehicle for Julio and Tenoch’s journey into adulthood. Like heaven itself, it is a destination that is both inimitable and unreachable, as it is a principle that represents perfection. And yet, knowing this, Luisa still encourages them to travel there. When they arrive, it is Luisa’s perspective we see: she is calm and collected; already an adult, she knows what to expect, and accordingly isn’t disillusioned when she is faced with nothing more than a simple beach. Julio and Tenoch, on the other hand, come out of the experience bitter and disenchanted. What happens, Cuarón asks, when you get what you want and realize it isn’t really what you wanted after all? In the end, this is precisely Julio and Tenoch’s relationship with adulthood.

But why does Luisa take on the responsibility of guiding Julio and Tenoch on their disheartening pilgrimage into adulthood in the first place? Before they set out on their journey, Luisa learns that she has terminal cancer and only a couple of months to live. Knowing this, she passes the torch to the young boys, making it her mission to teach them that, for better or for worse, adulthood won’t be a thing like they think it’s going to be.

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Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.