Leafing through the back catalogue of Gael García Bernal reveals a cacophony of wit, freewheeling youth and crime capers from kids who would trip over their own shoelaces before tying together a successful plan. The firecracker actor with the boyish smile has amassed an impressive oeuvre, undoing conventions of buddy comedy and petty urban crime. It’s an immense shame, then, that when he’s behind the camera and not in front of it, this success crumbles and shows little reason to play along.
Chicuarotes centres on two clowns looking for a quick and fast route to success. They’re restless teen boys, waving guns when their sketch routines don’t amass the cash they think they deserve. They are Cagalera and Moloteco, best friends from working-class homes who want to get out and get rich. The simple premise offers as much potential as anything Bernal has starred in before, but the story that unfolds is lacking any of the actor’s charisma, and only delivers misguided melodrama.
It’s difficult to avoid comparisons to other titles in the canon of this genre, because Chicuarotes spends too much time paying homage to what the boys want, rather than giving any compassion to who they already are. Their moral compass is foggy: Cagalera defends his sister but also belittles her; his mother is abused by her new partner but is only granted half-hearted and over-baked redemption; an unnecessary kidnapping turns cruel and saves no one; attempted rape is used as a grisly tool for unsuccessful blackmail.
Bernal never quite crosses the line into exploitative material, but the small slivers of empathy are sugar-coated by an overbearing soundtrack, making insistent attempts to direct mood in confusing ways. The director never fades from view, as he relishes stylistic emphases in lieu of convincing storytelling.
The decisive moments of Chicuarotes leave a sour taste. While the film sets out to give control to the pair of renegade criminals, it lacks credibility in the way it presents the idea that teenagers might learn from their mistakes, or that they could ever be afforded better judgement to begin with. Their motivations shoulder resentment from the beginning, as the mission is always defensively hostile instead of galvanising of innovative. These kids lack the sensitivity of Y Tu Mamá También or the conviction of Amores Perros and fail to bring much heart to their own story. Clowning around is all well and good, until someone gets hurt.