Deceptively sumptuous given its scruffy punk milieu, We Are Mari Pepa (Somos Mari Pepa) breathes unexpected life into the naturally jaded (but hormone-riddled) body of youth/skate/band/buddy flicks. Samuel Kishi Leopo‘s debut is utterly faithful in its depiction of the torpor and hope that doggedly accompanies teenagers everywhere, while limning a distinctly Mexican portrait of Jalisciense life over the course of a formative summer. Flush with teen spirit–that unassailable combination of insouciance and defiance—the film ultimately yields to the more wistful moods exacted by the reality of growing up. The symbolically slammed bedroom door separating youth from senescence, the modern from the traditional, the unrepentant two-chord blast from the venerable canción unspooling on vinyl, is gradually left ajar by Leopo’s rather keen sense of nostalgia.
School’s out, for summer. Alex, Moy, Rafa, and Bolter are in a band, the eponymous Mari Pepa (a typically lame attempt at nomenclature that references the twin engine of teenage hedonism, pot and pussy). Less one-hit wonder than single-song repertoire, the band grind out their willfully insulting anthem to a crowd of none at the film’s outset. Never mind the lyrics. The screech of feedback comes to a deafening silence in a nearly empty lot, thus establishing the film’s agenda of contrasting registers in which the immersive myopia of adolescence is set against the longer view afforded with maturity. Leopo employs the tossed-off immediacy of POV–presumably shot on Alex’s cruddy digital camera–against a montage (formal but not too aggrandizing) that catalogues the material effects of the kids’ habitats. The resultant visual scheme situates Alex’s Iggy Pop posters against his grandmother’s cupboard tableau of canned pineapple, favoring neither while lingering long enough to suggest that time renders both of them into artifacts of what ultimately survives us. This spirit of incongruity gently pervades a narrative that subtly accumulates a sense of wisened melancholy, shaped by the mournful undertow of sibling Kenji Kishi Leopo’s soundtrack, and especially the hangdog stoicism of Alex’s (Alejendro Gallardo) gaunt face hidden within his rocker mane.
Indeed Alex emerges as something of a protagonist, owing most likely to Leopo’s autobiographical design, but also to his role as the band’s default leader with aspirations of writing a real song. As a chronicle of hanging out, the film loiters accordingly: skateboarding, playing soccer in the street, arguing at band practice, pining for girls, resisting employment. The mood of truancy, however, implies that some domestic drama can’t be far off, and Somos Mari Pepa is at the least about the dawning of certain familial realities upon the distracted and impressionable perspective of these rather innocent kids (“sons of no one, bastards of young” sang the Replacements, snarling and insightful). The film alternates between the friends’ downtime and their respective home lives, the latter most revealing of how punk becomes an attitude: more a response to, or flight from, where we come from than a mere costumed lifestyle choice.
Rafa (drums) is harangued by his mother about college applications, while his out-of-work, ineffectual dad drinks cans of beer in a parked car while listening to Chivas games on the radio. Curly-locked Moy (bass) is a Momma’s boy and romantic who’s more interested in his new girlfriend than laying down bass lines for the band’s second song. The cocky Bolter (vocals) increasingly disappears into the back of his cousin’s (“so, you an emo or what the fuck?”) passing black Chevy pick-up truck, an initiation into a more grown-up but possibly shady world. Alex (guitar) lives with his mute grandmother, who is under the suspicion that the boy is up to some form of evil, which she tries to cleanse with cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol. The absence of parents is never explicated but rather is eventually disclosed when his estranged father turns up, along with a half brother to whom Alex takes considerable time to befriend (realized in a sweet sequence that sees Alex taking an imaginary bullet to the stomach, Western style).
More innocuous than menacing (think Rebella y Stoll over Larry Clark, Cantinflas over Los Olvidados), the film is nonetheless weighted by a sufficient dose of hardship. Alex’s guitar gets stolen by a couple of thugs, while his grandmother literally starts drifting away (not before eradicating his roomful of diabolical rock posters). Losing their chance at a battle-of-the-bands proves to be a bummer, but the possibility of losing an abuela casts a mournful spell on the film’s gently ironic tone. Change is imminent. Rafa considers selling his drum kit and gets a job selling ice cream (donning a silly hat while his pals demand free hand-outs). Alex finds a pawn shop replacement guitar but can’t barter his beloved camera for it (a move that figures significantly on the film itself, as much of the content is culled retrospectively from his own crude but touching clips). An evangelical Herbapower sales pitch provides a nearly tragicomic dynamic to the downturn, extracting pathos from the realization that both Alex and Rafa’s deadbeat dad are more or less in the same broken boat, albeit separated by thirty years. The film’s slice of middle-class life is represented in a non-peremptory fashion, with the kids merely lamenting the razing of their despoiled skate spots to make way for new parking lots. The modestly unarched but propulsive trajectory of Somos Mari Pepa extends to include a sympathetic neighborhood hobo named Pipipi who commands screentime with his tales of former soccer glory, while a local convenience store clerk regales the kids with a tale of scaring off would-be burglars with a machete (cue the in-store security cam footage).
Confined to its coming-of-age genre while transcending its cliches, Somos Mari Pepa is an appropriately out-of-key but acutely detailed charmer whose punk scowl belies a pop-at-heart sensibility. Alex’s small consolation (as opposed to grand redemption) arrives at an unexpected moment, in the haze of a house-party, when he steals a kiss and gets a shot at proving his guitar chops. Shoeless at dawn, he scuffles home victoriously in spite of wearing plastic bags on his feet. The image consolidates the film’s rather affable approach. In the end, Alex resumes his place among the band, strumming an acoustic guitar out of necessity. Mari Pepa are catchy, but the memorable sound left in the film’s wake is that of a grandmother’s phantom radio, tuned in to a half century of history and the voice of Guadalajara, channeling a dying era of suffering for love, and of pork and pineapple for breakfast.