[Image courtesy of leedsfilm.com]
Part of 28th Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF28)
5th – 20th November 2014
Remember your teenage years? The naiveté, the hopeful sense that everything will turn out alright, the days spent in a Guadalajaran garage endlessly practicing with your terrible, terrible punk band? No? Well, Samuel Kishi’s We Are Mari Pepa just might make you think you do.
For Alex (Alejandro Gallardo) and his friends, summer has come and the big battle of the bands contest is steadily approaching. They spend their days practicing the one song they have and trying hard to write a follow-up. However, as life goes on and responsibilities start to come in, the boys begin to realise that perhaps there’s more to life than they thought.
We Are Mari Pepa plays out something like a Mexican version of The Inbetweeners, albeit with younger characters and more focus on how they are growing up. In a surprising twist for this sort of film, the characters actually speak like they should. Too often when adults are writing for teenage characters they have no real idea how their characters should talk, but Samuel Kishi quite frankly nails it. This is partly down to a willingness to embrace the kind of vulgarity that teenagers can and do come out with. Make no mistake, this is not a film you’d want to take your sainted grandmother to; Kishi’s characters fire out swear words several times a sentence, but rather than coming across like he’s trying too hard, it instead sets the right tone for these teenagers.
This is of course helped by some very capable young actors. If the characters didn’t have that tangible chemistry and believability about them, then it would have been easy for the film to have flopped. Thankfully, Gallardo et al carry it off to an extent that you’ll really believe they’re close friends both on and off-camera. Their naturalism really is quite impressive.
Of course, this would be for nothing if the characters they had were left undeveloped. Thankfully, they are immediately likable and relatable, despite their immaturity. Part of this is down to the way scriptwriters Leopo and Sofia Gomez Cordova pen the relationships between the boys and their families. While they have great chemistry between themselves, the scenes between Alex and his ailing grandmother are some of the most touching elements of the movie, and it’s hard not to feel a little pang after her untimely death.
It must be praised as well for eschewing the typical climax for this kind of movie. In any other film, Mari Pepa would have gone on to either win the battle of the bands, or to lose it but learn an important lesson along the way. Here though, they don’t even make it to the contest. As their summer goes on, each of the boys find themselves growing as people, be it through new relationships, jobs or commitments to family, to such an extent that by the time Alex is explaining the band’s name to a girl at a party (‘Mari’ is short for marijuana and ‘Pepa’ is a reference to female genitalia), we really believe that he is slightly ashamed of it.
Kishi does tend to overuse a technique of having a character walk out of a static shot only to then come right back in, but this is only a minor criticism. A more pressing one would be how close the film’s rambling narrative comes to losing its audience’s interest. For a while, it feels like We Are Mari Pepa doesn’t quite know where it’s trying to go. This is largely due to the multiple characters whose stories we follow – at the beginning, when all four of the boys are in the limelight it can feel a little messy, but as the film shifts focus more onto Alex the structure tightens up.
Indeed, what Kishi has achieved here is to capture something of that teenage optimism that everyone felt once in their lives, the feeling of having the world at your feet and good friends to share the road with. His film is funny, inventive and occasionally even quite moving, and while it may not be up there with the likes of Ferris Bueller and The Breakfast Club, as a coming-of-age movie it surely has its merits.