“Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.” ~ ‘Y tu mamá también’
If I didn’t grow up with the movies, would I still love them?
Many of the films that have profoundly impacted me, I first discovered when I was a teenager. I watched Jean-Luc Godard’s work and made it my mission to date a French girl who smoked cigarettes. What can I say? Hormones were raging and my mind was opening to a world much bigger than my backyard. Movies offered me a window into that world. They shaped my beliefs on romance, on politics, on life itself.
But sometimes I wonder if I would still be moved if I discovered movies now, in my late 20s, after what feels like a lifetime of real-world experiences. And if the answer is no, what would have molded me instead?
For movie lovers of my generation, few films were as impactful as Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (2001). It was pure movie bliss, and as teenagers starved for action, it presented us an exciting world we could only hope we’d one day get to experience.
On the surface, you can say that Y tu mamá también is about two horny teenage boys who take a road trip across Mexico with an older woman. She teaches them a lot along the way, mostly about sex.
However, if you delve a little deeper, you’ll find that Y tu mamá también has much to say about the tension between freedom and responsibility, the line between doing what you want to do and doing what you have to do. It’s a line I sometimes struggle crossing, even as I’m consciously aware that no one has put the line there but myself. Still, I ask the same questions: Do I have another drink at the bar and risk a hangover at work the next day? Do I spend the money I just saved on a spontaneous weekend getaway? What does adulting look like, and am I doing it? Do I have to do it?
In the film, the two teenage boys Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) are too young to have real responsibilities and don’t bother to ask these questions. They both have girlfriends, but the kind you know won’t stick around after school. When their girlfriends go on a trip to Italy together, Julio and Tenoch rejoice their newfound freedom.
At a wedding, the boys meet Luisa (Maribel Verdú), the older woman who is married to Tenoch’s cousin. To impress her, they speak of a secluded beach called “Heaven’s Mouth” and invite her to go find it with them. As someone with responsibilities, she declines.
But eventually Luisa learns that her husband cheated and decides to join the boys on their journey after all. What else does she have to lose? Later in the film, it’s revealed that she also has terminal cancer. She throws caution to the wind because this may be her last chance for a great adventure.
As funny and freewheeling as Y tu mamá también is, there’s an undercurrent of sadness. It’s as if Luisa always knows, even if the younger boys don’t, that any feeling of pure freedom is always ruined by the inevitability of its passing. Whatever escape we get from life’s humdrum routine is ephemeral, and we’re immediately snapped back into a world of responsibilities, deadlines and commitments. Join the Zoom meeting, buy the groceries, pay the bills, call mom and dad. It seems the things we have to do in life are never-ending, and the longer the list gets, the less of it we want to do.
I’ve always believed you don’t need money to be free, because there are plenty of wealthy people who fill their lives with cumbersome commitments they’d much rather avoid. What you need is a mindset, and frankly, too many don’t have it. It’s the mindset Luisa develops after she learns she’s dying, where she can release herself from her responsibilities because she knows, at some point in the near future, she won’t be around to deal with the consequences.
What I never understood, though, is why people wait until some sort of life tragedy or terminal illness to develop that mindset. It’s not as if death is any less imminent. If anything, it’s worse because the uncertainty of when it will come is even more pronounced. Rather than the knowledge of when, there’s just this lingering dread. It may happen today, it may happen tomorrow, it may happen 50 years from now, but it will happen, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
I’m glad I discovered Y tu mamá también at a young age because it taught me an important lesson that many people don’t learn until it’s too late. Namely, that our time here is finite, and every minute we waste doing something we don’t want to do is a minute we’ll never get back. It might sound like a hallmark card, but really take a step back and ask yourself: Are you happy? Are you proud of the life you’re leading? How much time do you spend doing things you have to do, versus doing things you want to do?
I know whenever I order that second drink at the bar, or whenever I decide to go on that weekend trip, it’s because the spirit of Y tu mamá también is subconsciously guiding me in the direction of living. It’s the same spirit that guided me to move to New York City without a job or much money. It’s the same spirit that guided me to travel Vietnam by myself for three weeks. It’s the same spirit that guided me to approach the girl across the room when everyone said I had no shot at dating her.
I’m older now than I was in high school, but Y tu mamá también still matters to me. I suppose, more than anything, it matters because it represents an idea that I’ve fought hard to hold onto over the years, despite life’s continued insistence to try and take it away. It’s an idea of choosing happiness and making memories out of the joyful little moments, however fleeting they may be.