“José” is an intimate character portrait depicting the struggle between responsibility and love in a gay teen in modern day Guatemala.
What was the last movie you saw set in Guatemala? Director and co-writer Li Cheng loses himself in the milieu, the street life of Guatemala City, as much as he does in the story, and “José” is all the richer for it.
Cheng’s camera captures street food, street commerce, street festivals and street protests in an old, worn working class city where struggle takes the form of very hard work for very little pay. Down here, it really does take two to make ends meet.
At an age when we’re all at our most hormonal, longing to follow love, opportunity and optimism wherever they take us, José, tenderly but cryptically portrayed by Enrique Salanic, is a young man trapped in poverty, responsibilities and a culture that isn’t accepting of his sexual orientation.
From this simple plot Cheng (“Joshua Tree”) weaves a near-perfectly-observed character study with a vivid and novel sense of place.
Cheng uses images, not a lot of dialogue, to set the tone and tell an over-familiar tale of love in the shadows, a furtive romance and the crushing burden of life on the edge of poverty.
José has a job, waiting tables and working the curbside business — hustling up customers driving by on the street for a dobladas restaurant..
And he has a boyfriend, Luis (Manolo Herrera), a construction worker he sneaks off to hour-rate hotels whenever he can. It started as a pick-up and turns into something passionate.
But burning through cash for assignations and blowing off work isn’t smart. He’s letting down his mother (Ana Cecilia Mota), a street vendor barely able to keep a roof over their heads.
“What would I do without you?” she pleads (in Spanish with English subtitles). And she’s serious. She is that close to homeless and starving.
She is a pious Christian woman in a culture of bus preachers, street preachers and Protestant pastors, and what she doesn’t know about José she’s starting to suspect.
Luis can’t talk José into running off with him, some place they can be “normal…anywhere but Guatemala.”
José internalizes all of this and clings to that late-teens denial as long as he can — motorbike rides in the country, making out in the sugar cane, lying to his mother well past the point it works.
Something has to give.
In Cheng’s version of Guatemala, men leave women. José is the son of a single mother who was the daughter of a single mother. This weighs on José. He’s giving pep talks to Carlos (Esteban Lopez Ramirez), a cook at the restaurant dating waitress Monica (Jhakelyn Waleska Gonzalez Gonzalez), telling him what she needs and expects, trying to head off yet another man-runs-off scenario.
But can he break the pattern with his own mother? Can Luis?
The scenario here is soapy and a tad familiar. But Cheng’s vivid depiction of the life going on all around his characters — bus rides and sermons, a traditional parade for the Virgin Mary, Alka Seltzer, Coca-Cola and Advil signs, businesses with “Siguenos en Facebook” posters — enriches the story and makes José, his life, his world and his predicament something anyone can relate to.
MPAA Rating: unrated, nudity and sex
Running time: 1:28