Between Will-o’-the-Wisp, Winter Boy, and now Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, lovers of gay cinema are being served well at 2022’s iteration of the Toronto International Film Festival! Based on the young adult book of the same name, queer co-writer/director Aitch Alberto pulls off an astounding feat of intimate, deeply personal storytelling. As Aristotle himself describes in the film, I definitely felt “magic” the first time he meets colorful and talkative Dante. We may have seen this type of story before, but the way it is explored here felt singular and unique in perspective. The lens of two 17-year-old Mexican-American teenagers gives the movie a previously unseen level of insight by way of culture, familial conflict, and discovering one’s own sexuality.
Set in 1987 El Paso, we first enter this story through Aristotle (Max Pelayo), known to those closest to him as Ari. Ari, a self-described loner, prefers not to worry about the typical girl troubles or judgmental friends. Instead, he picks fights with boys, and keeps to himself. He even holds his parents (Eugenio Derbez, Veronica Falcon) at a distance, who both seem warm overall but refuse to discuss Ari’s incarcerated brother, Bernando. Only his Tia Ophelia (Marlene Forte) seems to understand Ari.
Enter: Dante (Reese Gonzales), in all his adorable glory. Where Ari is withdrawn and thinks the world is a dark place, Dante is an almost total opposite—Dante is a passionate budding artist with a huge personality. Their first meeting is significant and note-perfect. Ari still has not learned how to swim, but just as he is struggling to stay afloat, Dante swoops in to offer his services. The two boys have an instant, tangible connection that practically explodes in fireworks.
Alberto knows exactly how to ratchet up the romantic tension between them, establishing their bond to one another easy as pie. Before long, Ari is regularly hanging out with Dante at the pool. They each take stops over at one another’s home, meeting their respective parents—Dante’s are scholarly (Kevin Alejandro) and sophisticated (Eva Longoria), while Ari’s are sweet but more reserved. For this reason, plus Dante’s talkative nature, Ari declares Dante to be a “pocho,” or “half-assed Mexican.”
Their courting is completely a sweet one. Gazing up at the stars together on a camping trip, Dante proclaims that someday, he wants to “discover all the secrets of the universe.” Some of this dialogue was giving me vibes of another great book/film, The Fault in Our Stars. Thankfully, Aristotle and Dante never goes into full-blown tragedy mode, but it definitely brought on some tears for this viewer. A particular scene in the final act had me running for tissues.
Of course, something has to solidify this friendship as love. A horrifying accident where Ari goes into full-on protector mode is what pushes it over the edge. Dante notices a fallen bird in the pouring rain; Ari proclaims that he can still save the bird, and runs into the street to catch it. Seeing Dante in danger as a car approaches him, Ari lunges out and shields Dante from the incoming damage. As Ari recovers from the accident, he calls out for Dante in his sleep. I could feel this connection deep into my very soul at this point, and longed for the two boys to get together. The rest of the film follows their whirlwind romance as the two navigate how to approach their friendship, and depicts the letters they write to one another whilst Dante is away in Chicago.
Though Aristotle and Dante is ultimately light and hopeful, it still deals with serious issues at times. A first kiss, family acceptance, the AIDS epidemic, a gay bashing, and violence against the trans community are all addressed. The bashing in particular in done in a way I have not really seen depicted before in this genre of film. Both Dante and Ari’s parents are open-minded and accepting of their children, which is another refreshing turn that differs from the norm. Many LGBT stories are depicted as tragic—when one comes along that feels as “honest and true” as can be with a measured amount of levity and humor intact, that makes Aristotle and Dante worth celebrating in my eyes.
Picking out what surprised me the most about this magnificent, touching drama is a difficult task, but the performances of Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales take the cake. Both are first-time actors, and they each bring something unique to the roles of Aristotle and Dante, respectively. One can feel the aching adoration they have towards one another. As hard as Ari might try to suppress what he is feeling inside, the opening narration already told us everything we needed to know about his true feelings. “Magical” is exactly the kind of courting we receive. Brilliant cinematography courtesy of Akis Konstantakopoulos is heavy on the closeups, so as to capture the raw emotion behind every moment. A whimsical score from Isabelle Summers gives a final, touching edge that sets the perfect mood each time it pops up.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe feels utterly timeless in spite of its 80s setting. Yes, there are recognizable decade-specific tunes like “Cruel Summer” that pop up, but each choice feels organic and natural, rather than overused and generic. Ari being obsessed with “La Bamba” seemed so funny and random, but weirdly fitting. In the TIFF Q&A, Aitch Alberto mentions she would definitely do the sequel book, Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World—just like with Love, Simon, I would absolutely love to see the world of Aristotle and Dante continue! Their connection is one for the ages.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe screened at 2022’s Toronto International Film Festival.
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