A circular fisheye lens shows a shaky digital image of a handrail in a skate park. A youthful skater attempts a trick and immediately wipes out. His friends ask him if he’s okay. Upon confirming as much, they immediately immediately crouch over his head to teabag him like triumphant Halo players. This is the opening of Samuel Kishi Leopo’s debut feature film We Are Mari Pepa, and there’s plenty of unsteady digital juvenilia to go around: skate tricks, punk rock songs, amateur YouTube videos, action figures mounting each other, acned teens flipping off the camera and humping various objects in between shit-talking and cat-calling girls. It’s the stuff of Jackass, CKY, and Epicly Later’d. Yet we soon find out that the grainy macho façade is merely the image that the film’s youthful protagonists project out in the world; the truth, it turns out, is much more interesting.
We Are Mari Pepa is in many respects a straight-ahead coming-of-age story, and as such it doesn’t necessarily have a lot to add to the genre. Set in Guadalajara, Mexico, the film casually tells the story of Alex (Alejandro Gallardo), an aspiring teenage punk rocker whose obsession with Joey Ramone is heavy enough that he has mirror set over the musician’s face on his bedroom Ramones poster. Alex has a band, Mari Pepa (named after a combination of a slang term for marijuana and a slang term for the female genitalia), with his three best friends — a band whose only song mostly consists of the refrain, “I wanna cum in your face, Natasha!” Between the usual summertime obligations of family, girlfriends, summer jobs, and college applications, they busy themselves with the familiar batch of “your mom” and “your sister”-themed insults, go to parties, talk about girls, and exchange porno DVDs, all portrayed with a familiar mixture of humor and brutal awkwardness.
Yet We Are Mari Pepa’s real strength lies not in the furthering of such stereotypical teen boy activities but in its exploration of the disconnect between how teenagers act with their friends and how they truly live at home. The life outside Alex’s homemade digital videos is much bleaker; the film’s actual cinematography is stark and muted, while Guadalajara is shown mostly as a dilapidated collection of buildings and fenced-off townhouses. Away from the boisterous teen group, scenes of home life are quiet and subtle — as though the film itself is a teenage boy in a group of close friends, finally able to breathe a little away from the group’s social pressures. It is just this kind of intentional disconnect that helps Mari Pepa underline the schizophrenic and contradictory nature of adolescence. For as much as Alex and his friends endlessly talk shit to one another, they slip into mute, semi-comatose expressions on their faces whenever they are in the presence of anyone outside of their own friend group. They can boast and brag all they want, but at the end of the day they still have to administer insulin shots to their siblings, reluctantly fill out college applications, or deal with a father who only ever appears to sit at the dining room table silently reading the newspaper.
As the punk rock veneer strips away, the film’s real beauty sets in. As with all coming-of-age stories, responsibilities and obligations arrive and friends fade away. The band loses importance, the aimless teenage wandering gives way to searches for jobs, and hanging out becomes a scheduled activity rather than an assumption. It’s a testament to Kishi Leopo’s skill and intelligence that the film itself seems to mature before our very eyes as we watch — the childishness fades away, the quietness increases, and maturity forces itself on the protagonists. We know the decline is inevitable, and yet, like any good coming-of-age film, We Are Mari Pepa manages to make the inevitable a bittersweet and nostalgic experience, rather than a tired or predictable one.
Mari Pepa gives one final performance in the end, in all its glorious immaturity and vulgarity, and they’re barely able to make it all the way through in one piece. Behind them sits Guadalajara, concrete and tired, and before them an eager younger brother watches as the band sings vulgar words. In its own way, this is the film’s telling of generations and youth. And it, too, fades away, ending with much younger homemade digital footage of the boys — a look backwards at a childhood that existed in shaky digital moments.