In the vast landscape of coming-of-age LGBTQ+ films, it is common to encounter media containing wildly hyperbolic storylines dramatizing the coming-out experience where coming to terms with queerness is inextricably linked to rainbow capitalism that caters to a predominately white demographic. In her debut film, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” director and writer Aitch Alberto undoes this rhetoric by painting a boundlessly beautiful and intimate portrait of gay Mexican-American adolescence in the late 1980s.
Based on Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel, Alberto’s adaptation not only parallels the major plot points of the book but enriches Sáenz’s storytelling through a talented, diverse cast whose acting brings the prose to life. Passionate and vocal about her experience as a trans, Latine filmmaker, Alberto possesses the proper skillset to create a film that appropriately and accurately addresses LGBTQ+ issues within the Latine community.
In 1987 El Paso, Texas, 15-year-old Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza (Max Pelayo) meets Dante Quintana (Reese Gonzales) at his local swimming pool, a boy his age whose curious wit and vivacious optimism is immediately alluring to Ari. After their serendipitous union and an offer from Dante to teach Ari how to swim, the two embark on a magnificent friendship that summer that incrementally helps them both consolidate and examine their relationships with race and sexuality.
The film, narrated by Ari, follows him over the course of two years. While the cinematography is lovely, full of colorful wide shots drawing attention to surroundings, its sole purpose is to illuminate the screenplay — every bit of dialogue is matched with close-ups that allow audiences to truly absorb each exchange.
Although a dialogue-heavy, deeply introspective film may ordinarily be at risk of being slow-paced and lackluster, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” is entirely the opposite. Pelayo and Gonzales’ respective performances work in tandem with Alberto and Sáenz’s writing and characterization. While Ari is proud to be Mexican, he is deeply closeted, resentful and pessimistic, thus reluctant to explore being queer in any capacity before Dante. Conversely, Dante rejects his Mexican identity but explores his queerness openly on his own and with his beloved companion. Such heightened struggle is felt in the intensity of the actors’ delivery and the poignant truth behind the screenplay, which mirrors the realistic adolescent experience.
During scenes where dialogue is sparse, the cinematography becomes even more meaningful, allowing audiences to feel just as connected to the characters through evocative imagery. From letters and paintings to endless mementos and nonverbal acts exchanged between Ari and Dante, the camera captures snapshot moments of the duo’s relationship — sometimes without a single word being spoken.
As Ari and Dante continue to teach each other about the world and grow from their conversations accordingly, they foster an intense mutual love that manifests in the form of a sweet and innocent, yet deeply passionate romance. The pacing is even throughout the entire film, and each endeavor Ari and Dante face is pivotal in their coming-out journey.
“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” will be released in theaters on Sept. 8. A heartwarming and fervent film, any young person — especially anyone who resonates with the queer POC experience — is sure to fall in love with Aristotle, Dante and the families that shape them.