Youth and music are just one of those timeless combos like arroz con pollo, right? Well, yes and no. In three of this year’s strong Latin American Tribeca Film Festival offerings we see something different  than the typically expected, neatly pre-packaged form. These films craft compelling, multi-layered stories that focus on young people’s perspectives, weaving in musical themes in unexpected ways to give voice to dreams, ambitions, and even alternate life paths.

First up, Venezolana Mariana Rendón’s feature Pelo Malo focuses on Junior, a young boy whose outward appearance just doesn’t match up with what he feels inside. He spends his days minimally supervised in his high-rise housing complex, where faded murals of the revolution underscore how far the impoverished reality has veered from the dream. Junior fervently hopes for “pelo bueno” instead of “pelo malo”– for him this means elusively straight, free flowing locks that he can only achieve by applying enormous amounts of effort and sometimes oil or mayonnaise to his naturally curly, kinky hair. As the darker-skinned older boy of his mother’s two children, it’s not just his more African features but also his more effeminate ways that make him the brunt of her anger. Her temper short from trying to keep the family financially afloat as a single mother, she bristles when she sees Junior dancing, innocently waving his hands in the air. But then his mother leaves him with his grandmother who understands and even encourages young Junior’s differences. She helps him blow out his hair and encourages him to sing and dance along to a saucy 60s tune by an Afro-Venezuelan singer.

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Music in Pelo Malo is a space that blends youthful innocence and energy with more mature issues of race and sexuality. In seeing the freeing, then freezing, of energy through a young protagonist’s eyes, the alternating carefree pleasure and frustrating confusion it brings up are intensified. We want to dance, manos pa’rriba, along with Junior without a care. Music — envigorating, transporting, and playful — can move us to places beyond categories. But music is also so important when we are young because we use it to define who we are. For Junior, this starts to feel like a trap. Rendon captures the duality perfectly and let’s just say, as goofy as it sounds, you will not get the 60s tune Limon, Limonero” out of your head for a long, long time!

Music and youth are also important undercurrents in the drama Manos Sucias, a story about two young Colombians who, with few viable economic options, take their first job as couriers transporting drugs through the coastal waterways. Director Josef Wladyka, an NYU film school grad backed in part by former professor Spike Lee, spent an extended time researching and casting the film in Buenaventura, Colombia. He witnessed firsthand the significance of hip hop culture and local raperos to the young people there. He shows the impromptu dance clubs of the area as an important release valve and arena for expression for the young people. There is also an interesting dynamic between the two main leads: slightly older, quieter and more scarred Jacobo and the younger, more exuberant and playful Delio. Jacobo’s attachment to musica romantica versus Delio’s rap are closer to the same urges of expression than they might think. Utilizing songs which unite Afro-Latino heritage across international borders and incorporating traditional Colombian female singing styles, Wladyka crafts a multi-layered film that manages to be meditative while being suspense-filled. It’s a visual and auditory poem that like the songs of the sirens and stories of Ulysses, show us the journey is much more than a means to an end.

Finally, Alonso  Ruizpalacios’ Güeros is also all about the journey. It’s a quest whose goal is peripheral — driving on the Periférico of Mexico City to the outskirts of town to find a fabled rock legend, Epigmenio Cruz, before his old, alcohol-addled star gets snuffed out for good. Our young protagonist, “guerito” Tomás, wears a “Don’t Look Back” t-shirt throughout much of the film, an homage to D.A. Pennebaker’s early Bob Dylan rockumentary. The running joke through the film is that Cruz is known for once making Dylan cry. Getting into too much trouble for his mother to handle, Tomas’ mother ships him off to live with his older brother in the city. “Sombra,” the nickname given to his darker skinned older brother, is living within a squalid, slightly drunken aimlessness. He’s “on strike from the strike” that’s been unfolding for a while at his university, UNAM. Along with Sombra’s roommate and Sombra’s crush, the radical chic hottie student leader, they struggle through the meaningfulness and frustration of the strike’s counterculture. They try to wade through issues of class and race that typically go unsaid but shed a lot on issues of privilege, protest, education, and access. Ultimately they decide to chuck it all — at least for a while — to fulfill Tomas’ maybe goofy, maybe meaningful quest to find Epigmenio Cruz.

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The film shot in gorgeous black and white gives plenty of opportunities for film quotation, both earnest as ironic. Scenes that look like they came out of the golden age of Mexican cinema are also pointed out as films that created Indian stereotypes. Other scenes shot á la Godard or Truffaut introduce a playfulness and romanticism that brings an arty, lighter side to a cinema often expected to be nothing but dark and heavy. Despite the musically-motivated journey, Güeros is the anti-rockumentary. A film ostensibly about music and definitely about youth, it is mostly focused on exploding definitions and categories. Güeros challenges our ideas of what everyday slang and terms such as “güero” truly signify. It also shows the shades of difference between protests that often are turned into simplistic slogans or vague public actions and those that truly, practically, radically matter. We are lead to believe in the emblematic power of music and art.

At a big money festival in what now feels like an exclusively big money town, where it’s easy to get AT&T and Am Exed out, it is awesome to see complex Latin American-themed work programmed that vocalizes themes of youth and expression. So go catch it, get inspired, make your own film, art and music and holler loud to see that way more of it is supported and included in festivals to come!

The fest runs through April 27. Check our event listings for screening info on the Latino films playing the Tribeca Film Festival.

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