‘Aristotle and Dante’ spotlights a coming-of-age companionship

Aristotle aka Ari (Max Pelayo) and Dante (Reese Gonzales) in "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe."
Aristotle aka Ari (Max Pelayo) and Dante (Reese Gonzales) in “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.”
Blue Fox Entertainment

“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” is trans writer/director Aitch Alberto’s superb adaptation of the beloved YA novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz about the title characters, two Mexican American teenagers, coming of age and coming to terms with their sexuality in 1987 El Paso.  

Aristotle aka Ari (magnetic newcomer Max Pelayo) is a brooding 16-year-old who hopes to wake up and find that the world is different. He is afraid of turning into one of his classmates who obsesses over girls, or becoming a man who has to hurt men to prove himself. He also worries about being like his father, Jaime (Eugenio Derbez), who is “trapped in his silence.” Ari’s older brother is incarcerated for reasons that remain unknown to Ari; his caring mother Liliana (Veronica Falcón) and father do not discuss what happened. 

Ari is a loner, and angsty, waiting for his life to start. It does when he meets Dante (Reese Gonzales) at the community pool. Ari does not know how to swim, and the outgoing Dante teaches him by helping Ari float. “Trust me,” he asks, and Ari does, initiating a beautiful bromance. 

Alberto captures the easygoing friendship that develops between the two teens as they discover things about themselves and each other. Dante likes to walk barefoot and is bothered about his Mexican identity. Ari sees Dante as a kind of surrogate brother, and when Dante’s parents Sam (Kevin Alejandro) and Soledad (Eva Longoria) take him on a camping trip, they wholeheartedly embrace him as a member of their family.  

However, one rainy night, the art and poetry loving Dante drops a bombshell when he tells Ari that his family is moving to Chicago for a year. What is more, an accident occurs that same evening that sends Ari to the hospital. As Ari recovers without Dante by his side, he retains his loner status, keeping busy with a restaurant job, finding comfort with his new dog, Legs, and driving out to the middle of nowhere in a 1957 Chevy pickup his father gives him for his birthday. 

These scenes are beautifully filmed — some look right out of an Edward Hopper painting such as one where Ari reads one of the letters Dante sends him, which are full of musings about masturbation and kissing girls. Ari, too, starts kissing girls, namely, Elena (Luna Blaise), a classmate who sends him mixed messages. Then Dante drops another bombshell in a letter when he comes out as gay. The question arises: Will the teens’ relationship be the same when Dante returns to El Paso? 

“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” does feature a noticeably different dynamic between the friends after they reunite. Ari lays down the ground rule, “I don’t kiss boys,” and the besotted Dante reluctantly agrees on the condition that Ari does not run from Dante because he is gay. A détente is reached, but the friends do kiss, which prompts a fight, which leads to more drama.

Alberto sensitively portrays the ups and downs that occur between Ari and Dante in ways that never feel cloying or contrived. Although there are some obvious needle drops, and a DJ’s frequent comments on love are a bit too leading, these are minor missteps because the film is full of heart. As the characters grapple with their emotions, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” generates happy tears because of how honest and impactful their feelings are. A scene where Ari learns about his brother is quite painful, and Ari almost regrets learning the truth of what transpired, but it also shifts his thinking. Likewise, when something happens to Dante, Ari becomes full of rage and shame, some of it internalized. He releases his bottled-up emotions in ways that are both problematic and cathartic. 

The film’s real strength, however, is the sensational performance by newcomer Max Pelayo, who conveys all of the feelings Ari is suppressing — sometimes with just a blank look. When Tia Ophelia tells him, “You’re perfect just the way you are,” it makes him uncomfortable, because he feels otherwise. His moody, inchoate nature is such that he cannot recognize the love his parents, his aunt, and especially Dante all have for him. Watching him process his emotions and acknowledge that love is what makes the film so poignant and moving. 
As Dante, Reese Gonzales has a great energy and a real chemistry with Pelayo; their scenes together are charming. Gonzales thankfully never makes Dante into a queer cliché, despite his colorful clothes and aesthetic tendencies. A beautiful scene has Dante giving Ari his sketchbook, which contains images that hint at his unspoken attraction. Gonzales is endearing as he fills the silence with an offer to take back the gift, as if he realized he might have revealed too much of himself. The exchange perfectly encapsulates the magical dynamic between the two friends.

“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” is full of wonderful moments that deliver the feels. It is heartbreaking in all the right ways. 

“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” | Directed by Aitch Alberto | Opening September 8 at the Angelika Film Center | Distributed by Blue Fox Entertainment