Writer-director Aitch Alberto adapts Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, for the screen.
The film focuses on a pair of Mexican-American teenagers, Aristotle Mendoza (Max Pelayo) and Dante Quintana (Reese Gonzales), in El Paso during the late 1980s. Their friendship isn’t like most and it leads them down a path of self-discovery. The pair initially meet at a swimming pool where Dante teaches Ari how to swim. One gets an immediate sense of their differences almost as soon as they meet. Dante is a the sort of person who marches to the beat of their own drum while Ari is content to just do his own thing. Their friendship moves fast but then their world changes when Dante’s family moves to Chicago for a year. It’s 1987 so they stay in touch by way of writing letters. There’s no texting, no internet, and no hogging up the phone lines. When Dante comes back, he’s clearly a different person.
My interview with Aitch Alberto, Max Pelayo, and Reese Gonzales is forthcoming but I did make note of Dante writing to Ari about the many people he has seen after moving to Chicago for a year. There’s a real missed opportunity in pointing out a very important subset of Chicagoans: the many improv comedians living and performing in Chicago! I say this as someone currently living in Chicago after initially moving here for improv and sketch comedy. But I digress.
Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales deliver standout performances as they bring Ari and Dante’s vulnerabilities to the screen. We’re witnessing them early in their career. Who knows, maybe they’ll come back for the sequel? Based on the book’s popularity, any distributor will have a ready-made fan base to support the film. There is a big need for LGBTQ films–most of them end up being made independently because the studio support just isn’t here. Come on, studios!
Behind the scenes, Lin-Manuel Miranda produces the film after previously recording the audio book. While he does not physically appear in the film, Miranda makes an uncredited voice cameo over the radio as a DJ. I knew it was him as soon as I heard his voice in the background.
The book, which the film is based, took filmmaker Aitch Alberto on a journey of self-discovery. The media that we consume has a way of changing our lives in more ways than one. In this case, Aristotle and Dante unlocked something in the filmmaker much like the characters in the book and film. This speaks to why it’s so important to see ourselves in media. Diversity is so important on the screen. I’ve been so open about my own story of coming out as transgender so I will not rehash it here.
I did not read the book so I cannot tell you if the book is better than the film or vice versa. What I can tell you is that we need to see these sort of stories on the screen. The film is accessible in that you don’t necessarily need to be familiar with it. In any event, there is already a sequel to the first novel. You must do what you feel is right, of course.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is the sort of film that we need to be supporting and also has the potential to lead viewers on their own journey.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Aitch Alberto
CAST: Max Pelayo, Reese Gonzales, Eugenio Derbez, Eva Longoria, Veronica Falcón, Kevin Alejandro
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe held its world premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival in the Discovery program. Grade: 3.5/5
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