Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
As we grow up, we learn to put on different masks to adjust ourselves to the various people in our life. There’s the masks we wear for our parents, our teachers, and the people we’re looking to impress. Then there are the people we don’t have to do that for. We can just be ourselves around them, and they accept us and see us in a way that others before them did not. This is the kind of friendship Aristotle (Max Pelayo) has with Dante (Reese Gonzales). Aitch Alberto’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is adapted from a YA book of the same name.
Before Dante, Aristotle’s life is empty and isolated. His brother is in jail, his parents love him but don’t understand him, and he doesn’t hang out with many people. And then Dante offers to help teach him how to swim, and the world suddenly comes alive. Dante is passionate about so many things, and this inspires Aristotle to think about his own path and purpose. Soon they’re spending loads of time together, in each other’s homes, the swimming pool, even going on camping trips together. It feels so nostalgic to watch Ari and Dante spend those hot summer days together, taking us back to a simpler time before the internet and social media.
Pelayo and Gonzales really sell the connection between Ari and Dante. We can immediately see how easy it is for them to talk to each other, and how Dante is able to coax so much from the usually quiet Ari. They can talk about silly moments, like Dante’s refusal to don his shoes after a swim, and also communicate truths, like Ari calling Dante out on his desire to be white-passing and his distance from his own Mexican identity, or Dante’s encouragement to Ari to find out why his brother ended up in jail.
While the film’s focus is on Ari and Dante’s friendship, it’s also a queer coming of age tale. Both Ari and Dante are dealing with their sexuality and emerging desires, which isn’t easy to navigate given the 80s setting in El Paso, Texas. After Dante moves away to Chicago for a year, all they have to keep them connected are the letters that Dante writes to Ari. In them, he pens all his secret feelings and thoughts, and his eventual discovery about his queerness. While Ari is eager to receive these letters, he doesn’t always receive them well. In Dante’s absence he becomes angrier and more taciturn, wanting to understand Dante, but also feeling the pressure to conform to the masculine environment that surrounds him.
Queer coming of age tales are usually marked with pain and tragedy, and while there are horrific moments in this movie, the overall focus is on the beautiful connection between these two boys. It’s also really nice to see how both sets of parents handle their relationship with understanding and empathy, which makes for a pleasant change. Because their connection feels so authentic, one might even say magical, the film does feel a bit draggy in the stretch when Dante is away in Chicago. Alberto’s film is not a perfect one, and feels strangely safe in the way it explores its thematic concerns, but it’s the kind of YA film this generation needs, especially since Ari and Dante’s internal struggles are largely relatable.
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Actors Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales have affecting, genuine chemistry with each other, and the connection between their characters makes this such a sweet, heartfelt YA film.
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