Swimming Lessons — Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
When I was in seventh grade, I met a guy named Alex. He was new to the district, having moved from New Jersey. I’ve mentioned before in this space how we became friends, I think, basically me trying to get out ahead of all the rumors that bullies had successfully circulated to make my adolescence miserable and get a chance to get to know this guy before everyone else could sour him on me. We became inseparable fairly quickly, and spent tons of free time together, along with the rest of my very small circle of pals.
When the school year was winding down, I was looking forward to a summer of fun with him, as I’d never really had that as a kid. There were other children in my neighborhood, but as I said, most of them preferred torturing me over companionship, so this was going to be huge. However, those hopes ended when Alex informed me that he’d basically be spending the entire 12 weeks visiting extended family back in India, his parents having emigrated either before he was born or when he was very young. It was a letdown to be sure, and I didn’t do much of anything that summer other than stay up late to watch Beavis and Butt-Head. When he got back about three days before the new school term started, we got to hang out a little bit, and I was as excitable as a puppy, because my best friend was finally home. We promised to do the summer right the next year… which was when I moved away to New York. Funny how that all works out.
Still, we remain close to this day. In the pre-digital age, we kept in touch with letters and phone calls, I visited my old stomping grounds on a couple of occasions, and as young adults we made trips back and forth to see ballgames or get wasted. We still check in on each other, and even though it’s been more than a decade since we’ve been in the same spot, the bond is as strong as it ever was.
I got a big hit of that nostalgia while watching Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, based on a young adult coming-of-age novel, and front-runner candidate for the most unnecessarily long title of the year. It’s a curious, earnest film about the random relationships we form, and in how absence really can make the heart grow fonder. There’s also a romantic element to the whole thing, for which your mileage may vary. On the whole, though, this is an enjoyable, well-made, heartwarming addition to the genre, using its sincerity to overcome its shortfalls.
In 1980s El Paso, Aristotle, or Ari for short (Max Pelayo) is aloof and antisocial among his peers. He’s not into the same things as them, and considers most of them to be shallow gossipers. He goes to the community pool most days during his summer break, but never really goes in the water, because despite his parents paying for lessons, he doesn’t attend them, and thus can’t swim. One day, he meets Dante (Reese Gonzales), a more extroverted, artistic type, and they become fast friends due to their esoteric names and the fact that Dante is good at teaching Ari to swim on his own.
The two could not be more diametrically opposed in their lives. Ari’s family (Eugenio Derbez and Verónica Falcón) is working class and large, including older siblings who have either moved away, or in one case, become incarcerated. On the other hand, Dante’s parents (Kevin Alejandro and Eva Longoria) are well off. Dante is messy, while Ari is fastidious. Ari barely talks to his father, yet Dante calls his by his first name. Ari defines a large part of his life through his Mexican heritage, but Dante barely feels any connection to his.
These are strong dichotomies that help forge their rapport, much of it tinged with just enough lens flare to make the whole thing seem like a waking dream. On a camping trip, Dante shows Ari the stars for the first time, able to see them out in the desert without any light pollution. Their adventures are put on hold when Dante breaks the news at the end of the summer that he’s moving to Chicago for the school year (his father is an academic getting an associate professorship), but their bond is sealed when Ari saves Dante from a speeding car in the rain.
In an interesting choice, writer-director Aitch Alberto decides to depict their time apart through completely separate audio and visual spheres. On camera, we stay with Ari as he goes through his junior year of high school and sees the normal teenage rites of passage. He gets his first truck, his first job, his first dog, and his first crush. He even begins fitting in at school. In a wonderful bit of camera work and blocking, people comment on what they call Ari getting bigger, but Pelayo is simply walking a bit taller and straightening his posture to demonstrate the character’s confidence.
Meanwhile, Dante’s journey is entirely offscreen, delivered to us only through narrated letters he writes to Ari, which are thankfully far more interesting and relevant than the slog that was A Hidden Life. Things start off well enough, including his own social butterfly wings spreading and getting a girlfriend. However, things take a turn as Dante begins to realize he’s gay, leading to bouts of self-loathing, doubt, and fear as he leans on Ari as an absent confidante. By the time summer rolls around again and the two reunite, the tension is palpable, as there’s a question that has to be answered about how their dynamic will evolve. Will they still be friends? Will they be more? Will the angst and hormones surging through both of them result in heartbreak or worse?
Obviously, I won’t spoil anything, but it’s this third act aspect that leaves a bit to be desired. Just like the other oppositions in their relationship, Dante develops his sexual identity while Ari almost seems to have it foisted upon him. Most of this comes in the form of his aunt Ophelia (Marlene Forte), who gives a darling performance as a woman who had to stay in the closet her entire life, and whose gay-dar goes off around Ari, to the extent that she constantly reassures him that he’ll be loved and supported without ever actually saying that she thinks he’s not straight.
I’m kind of torn on this. On the one hand, a supportive family who just knows and accepts sexual diversity, especially in socially dangerous times, is heartwarming. It was arguably the most touching part of Flee, a film that’s got no shortage of emotional whammies. On the other hand, does this really happen? I’m not gay, so I’ve never had to go through the struggle of coming to terms with my sexuality, so I have no way of knowing if this is a normal occurrence. What I do know, however, is that many friends, acquaintances, and members of my own family assumed as much about me, and they were completely off base.
But setting that aside, these moments still feel off to me. Dante’s realization made perfect sense. You got to see his personality throughout his screentime in the first act, which then informed the anxiety in his letters. In most cases I’m a “show, don’t tell” guy, but this is a quasi-exception. We were shown enough about Dante in the early going that his telling comes off as organic. It also doesn’t hurt that the process unfolds at a very gradual pace.
For Ari though, while we stay with him pretty much the entire time, we don’t get any such evidence. He’s just an introvert that eventually finds his place in the high school hierarchy. We don’t see him look at other guys, or think that girls aren’t his thing. There’s confusion in his life, but it’s more navigating an unknown social structure and trying not to become like his imprisoned brother. Nothing is shown, or told, to imply that he’s questioning his sexual orientation, but Ophelia and others still make that presumption, and it’s handled in much quicker fashion than Dante’s situation. Unless liking “La Bamba” makes you gay (Ari sings it with goofy teenage gusto), we’ve got nothing to go on in his character development to draw that conclusion for ourselves. This is the flipside of the “show, don’t tell” argument. We’re shown a lot of things about Ari, but nothing that aligns with what we’re told by others.
There is one other flaw worth mentioning, and it does drag the final product down a few points. The film had its world premiere at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, and made its way through several more fests before being released publicly last weekend. Over the course of the year between premiere and wide release, you can tell there were several edits made to the audio, I’m guessing to solidify a PG-13 rating. At many points, especially in the third act, you can distinctly hear a different audio cut in whenever the characters say “frick.” Clearly, in the original cut, they said “fuck,” but in order to avoid that R rating, the actors (or soundalikes) went in for some quick ADR records that were hastily edited in. They’re all very obvious and very shoddy, right up there with the likes of “Yippee-ki-yay, Mr. Falcon!” or “I have had it with these mother-father snakes, on this Monday-to-Friday plane!” Whatever dramatic tension was being built in these scenes is instantly dashed in what plays like a bit of basic cable censorship, which flies in the face of the film’s themes. I understand the desire — and arguably need — to make sure younger audiences can watch this, but if that was truly the goal, the f-bombs shouldn’t have even been written into the script so that we could have natural takes of the somewhat cleaner dialogue.
Apart from these two major knocks, the film is quite enjoyable. The story is tender, and the performances very well done, particularly from our title leads. Hell, I was even for once not annoyed by Eva Longoria’s presence. Alberto’s direction deserves lauding as well, with her tight, intimate shots and balanced use of light and lens flare really enhancing the development of Aristotle and Dante’s relationship. The pair may not actually discover any secrets of the universe (not even a black hole or a comet, false advertising!), but where it matters most, they do make you believe that time and space are merely obstacles to be overcome together, rather than succumbed to in isolation.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did you ever have a friendship that survived massive time apart? How would you react if your aunt gave you a condom? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for more content!