In Y Tu Mamá También, a spirited road movie by the Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, two boys named Tenoch and Julio set off on a trip with an older woman, Luisa. The boys have met Luisa–who’s married to Tenoch’s callous, arrogant cousin–at a wedding in Tenoch’s upper-class family. The boys proposition her but she resists; later, though, when the callous husband confesses to an infidelity, and after we see her making a furtive visit to a doctor, she relents. That’s the plot, and the bulk of the movie concerns the threesome’s trip across a Mexico portrayed as beautiful and impoverished.

For much of the film it’s hard to tell if the story merely enacts adolescent male fantasies or has something to say about them. The distinction is probably too fine for the earthy, buoyant, ribald mood the film wants to sustain, but by the time it becomes clear it does have something to say, the movie’s hellraising energies have gone mellow. Though it’s a lot closer in spirit to American Pie than to the film some critics have cited as its precedent, Godard’s Band of Outsiders, in retrospect it’s one of the saddest teen comedies in memory.

The first scene–a straightforward representation of a boy and girl having sex–might put you queasily in mind of that anti-teen comedy of a few years ago, Larry Clark’s Kids. Clark’s movie adopted a cool, neutral posture, but set it off against a melodramatic tenor that prompted skittish critics to deem the movie a “wake-up call” regarding the dissolute state of the nation’s youth. (For my part, I was inclined to hit the snooze button.) But Cuaron wants his sex scenes to be joyous, not excruciating, so the kids giggle a lot–especially Gael Garcia Bernal as Julio, whose amorphous, tooth-wracked smile consumes his whole squarish jaw, and whose every line reading for the first half of the movie is overshadowed by his compulsive but strangulated laughter. Like the kids in American teen comedies, Julio and Tenoch think life’s a gas, and they’re wholeheartedly committed to the pleasure principle, even though they have some passing awareness of the reality principle: They know they’re going to grow up, and that’s why they’re so hot for a good time now.

Julio and Tenoch think the same things are hilarious that the kids in American Pie think are hilarious: farts, sex, dicks, whacking off, and the pretensions of grown-ups. Those who don’t share such predilections may have limited patience with the worldviews of people mired in these values, and that is the irreducible difference that sets the boundaries of the teen comedy demographic. Yet American teen comedies, and those who make them, are pretty staunchly committed to confirming their audiences’ sense that those issues really are the definitive factors of life. They think that’s how to give voice to the “youth audience”–or at least how to get that audience into theaters. And since it works, they may be right.

Godard’s Band of Outsiders is sometimes talked about as the coming-of-age of international youth culture. For better or worse, with his crony Francois Truffaut, Godard may be principally responsible for transmitting the values of post-war youth culture–rebellion, a quest for sexual freedom and self-determination, a jokey relation to intellect–into art movies, converting the sundry rebels-without-causes into pop-art insiders. If Y Tu Mamá También has anything in common with Godard’s movie, it’s its effort to be responsive to the immediacy of the kids’ experiences, and to find a vantage point somewhat apart from them, from which they can be seen in a larger context. Like Godard, Cuaron does this by stopping the action every so often and giving us an oracular, distanced voice-over, commenting on what’s happening, filling us in on background information that lets us see past the characters’ perspectives, and–as the movie goes on–even telling us what will happen later, after we have left the characters behind. It’s an almost faultless device, used successfully by artists from Sophocles through Yeats and beyond, and it works especially well with stories about caprices and the follies of youth.

For the first half of the film, Cuaron emphasizes the boys’ physicality and their lack of self-awareness–how they inhabit their bodies so fully, without thinking about it much. So we get lots of scenes showing them drinking, smoking, spitting, pissing, farting, swimming in the nude, having sex or wanting to, fantasizing about their own girlfriends and everyone else’s girlfriend, casually scrutinizing each others’ genitals and humorously commenting on them. The movie is as dick-crazy as any American teen comedy–which is to say, very–and shows special interest in the relative sizes of said dicks, while going to great lengths, like American movies, to keep the dicks out of camera-sight. The women’s bodies, by contrast, are paraded for the viewers’ full delectation.

Should these familiar patterns ever be departed from in any widespread manner, we would perhaps collectively discover how little worthy of discussion these organs really tend to be, and would perhaps then be spared the obsessive cultural interest in them. For now, however, it’s worth noting that this movie evinces an interest as fervent as any of its Hollywood counterparts, and for a while, its sexual politics seem about as retrograde as most movies that concern two horny boys trying to screw an older woman. That this is a fully recognizable genre–from Bertrand Blier’s Going Places to American teen comedies like Losin’ It (an early Tom Cruise vehicle set in Tijuana, with Shelley Long as the older woman)–attests to the domination of such male teen fantasies in world culture.

You don’t have to be Claude Levi-Strauss to understand that these narratives of male rivalry and these fantasies regarding the exchange of women are pretty definitive of patriarchal attitudes. Having set the wheels of this story in motion, Cuaron healthily resists it, or at least tries to expose its ideological underpinnings. Halfway through the movie, Luisa–apparently having dipped into some Levi-Strauss herself, or maybe some Eve Sedgwick–blithely reveals the dark secret of patriarchy. She tells the boys what most of us can probably figure out, that these obsessive ways of thinking might very well mean they unconsciously want to have sex with each other.

Movies like this typically raise this possibility only to dismiss it, or to excoriate or exorcise it; Cuaron’s movie follows the idea to its logical conclusion, at which point it radically parts company with the American Pie league. American teen comedies reflect both the fervor and the hysteria of adolescent sexuality, but not a one of them–except recently for the unjustly despised BASEketball–has ever been willing to meet this theme head on, even though it accounts for a large part of the hysteria, and most of the homophobia. The mournful tone of the last scenes of Cuaron’s movie has a fairly traditional “loss of innocence” feel to it, which I could do without (partly because, for reasons I can’t discuss without giving away the plot, it reintroduces some of the retrograde sexual politics the film had seemed to rise above). But it also casts a light of melancholy back on the film: In memory, the whole movie has a sheen of sadness, even at its happiest. It does what only the best of such movies can do–celebrates a spirit of youth, and without condescending to that spirit, or violating it, shows us how fleeting it is. EndBlock