I’m starting to feel about coming-of-age movies the same way I feel about superhero movies: at this point, it’s got to be really special for me to care anymore. That’s not to say that This Is Not Berlin (Esto no es Berlín), a new film from Mexican filmmaker Hari Sama, isn’t stunningly shot and captures its time and place with a fierce beauty, but, in the end, there just isn’t enough there there. I really wanted it to break my heart open, but it just left me wistful for what could have been.
There is no better time for Mexican cinema to break out. Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant) have dominated prestige Hollywood in the last few years, and Cuarón’s last film, Roma, came this close to winning Best Picture last year, despite being in Spanish, black-and-white, and having no stars. It’s a double-edged sword for Sama, though. On the one hand, there is no better time to be a Mexican filmmaker, but, on the other, if you make a film that can be too easily compared to one by the Three Amigos (not my nickname), you risk being labeled a clone. Which is why watching This Is Not Berlin is so difficult. While Sama clearly has an inventive voice, this movie allows itself way too many comparisons with Roma, reducing it to just another coming-of-age movie with a great soundtrack.
Set in Mexico City in 1986, This Is Not Berlin centers on 17-year old Carlos, who is struggling to find where he fits in. The film very effectively introduces us to his world—at home, at school, with his friends and his family—and we feel immersed in this time and place. Young actor Xabiani Ponce de León is quite captivating as Carlos, despite having zero range of emotions. He is beautiful and just enigmatic enough to pull off this guy who is drawn to the Mexico City underbelly art world, a vivid mash-up of drugs, sex and political activism. We see him come alive (as much as he can) in this world, absorbed into the color, music and alluring characters who suck him in. It’s all very effective, but just feels skin deep.
While writers Rodrigo Ordoñez, Sama and Max Zunino poignantly capture the confusion and loneliness of teen years, they don’t compel Carlos’s story arc along anything other than a predictable path that we’ve seen dramatized a million times. The detailed and inviting world they paint is definitely one that you want to linger in, but after a while I was longing for the story to surprise me, which it never does.
The performances are all strong, especially José Antonio Toledano, Ximena Romo, Marina de Tavira and even Sama himself, who plays a small but pivotal role. The direction and cinematography by Alfredo Altamirano are also first-rate, but the movie just cannot sustain beyond being eye candy. The bar for time/place snapshots was set very high by Cuarón, and while This Is Not Berlin is well-made, well-acted and well-meaning, it just can’t get there.