Movie Review: Bolivia’s “Tu me manques” could’ve been an Oscar contender

“Tu me manques” was Bolivia’s best hope for a Best International Feature Oscar nomination this year.

It’s a drama about the creation of the play it was based on, a fictionalized account of the playwright’s loss of a lover to suicide after coming out to his family, and that structure — the playwright telling the story of the play’s inspiration to a reporter — works against it just enough to let us see why it didn’t make the cut in a field that includes the Romanian self-indictment “Collective” and the Danish dazzler “Another Round.”

But while writer-director Rodrigo Bellot’s film adaptation of his play may cover tragic, if over-familiar gay “coming out” ground, its finale packs a culture-shifting punch to the gut that makes it all pay off.

Sebastian (Fernando Barbosa) gets the news in New York, an accidental, enraged minute of Facetime with Jorge (Oscar Martínez), the father of his ex-lover. He didn’t mean to respond to Sebastian’s many “Tu me manques (I miss you)” emails, but since I’ve got you on the line…

“STAY AWAY,” he rages (in English and Spanish with English subtitles). “You’ve caused enough pain in our family…We don’t have people ‘like that’ in our family!”

He throws in an “I know ‘your kind'” and a death threat for good measure. And then he drops the bomb. Gabriel is dead. He killed himself rather than get on a plane back to New York.

The recriminations go back and forth, and Sebastian figures that’s that, and starts doing what aspiring playwrights do. He wrestles with his grief by trying to create a play about Gabriel’s closeted life in the Catholic homophobic machismo of Latin America.

Only Jorge shows up at his door, wanting to “know” his son’s life in New York. Their arguments and debates turn into a journey through the city that Gabriel (Luis Gamarra) knew, the restaurant where he worked, their life together, their mutual friends (including one played by Almodovar favorite Rossy de Palma), even a visit to a “meat market” gay nightclub.

Sebastian relates this tale to a reporter, and throws in flashbacks within flashbacks to show their adorable retail men’s wear department “meet cute,” and Sebastian’s later struggles to get his play — with 30 actors playing “Gabriel” — on stage in conservative Bolivia.

Bellot’s depiction of New York gay life can feel like a cliche as we meet the most flamboyant of his and Gabriel’s friends, Alonso (Dominic Colón) and the bitchiest, TJ (Tommy Herlinger). But Herlinger nails the “degrees of gayness” gay spectrum lecture to Gabriel, delivered at the newcomer’s first gay New York party, seven “steps” that range from “I’m gay but…” to “flamboyant martyr.”

The play gets a “Chorus Line” audition treatment, assorted young Bolivian men telling their painful personal stories to Sebastian’s video camera, material that might turn up on stage as Gabriel’s story is turned into a universal one. Real life gay bashing interrupts rehearsals.

There’s also a clever scene where Sebastian takes Jorge to a New York priest who explains the various Biblical condemnations of homosexuality and pretty much “outs” St. Paul as self-loathing and closeted.

The clumsy structure interrupts the flow of the film and makes “Tu me manques” more of a mixed bag than it might have otherwise been. But the good moments stand out and the finale sticks with you, an arresting piece of theater whose power isn’t diminished when the camera simply shows you what actors are doing on a darkened stage.

MPA Rating: unrated, nudity, sex, profanity

Cast: Fernando Barbosa, Oscar Martínez, Rossy de Palma, Dominic Colón and Tommy Herlinger

Credits: Scripted and directed by Rodrigo Bellot, based on his play. A Dark Star release.

Running time: 1:50

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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