Joe Friar is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. He co-founded the Victoria Film Society and reviews films for Hit Radio 104.7 and the Victoria Advocate."

'This Is Not Berlin' (2019) Movie Review

A scene from Hari Sama's coming of age Mexican drama 'This Is Not Berlin'

An accurate slice of adolescent life is portrayed in Hari Sama’s coming of age drama that takes place in the new wave post-modern scene of 1986 Mexico. Xabiani Ponce De León and José Antonio Toledano deliver first-rate performances as 17-year old best friends who discover sex, drugs, and liberty in a quest for identity amidst the post-punk era and the politically charged climate of Mexico City.

The film opens with a slow-motion brawl between two groups of high school kids in the desert. The teenagers decked out in prep school uniforms resemble a Potter-gone-mad world as if Gryffindor and Slytherin decided to settle their rivalry with fisticuffs. Minutes later, the androgynous-looking Carlos (Xabiani Ponce De León), his best friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano) and their bloody and bruised classmates listen to “Breaking the Law” by Judas Priest while driving around, still amped up by the fight. Hari Sama’s handheld camera and tight editing capture the ferocity of Mexico City’s middle-class youth in search of their voice in the well-crafted coming of age drama.

Carlos and Gera, like most of us, grew up in dysfunctional homes. It’s 1986, a time when listening to Alvin Lee’s dexterity with a guitar was the norm for the two friends, the Ten Years song “I’d Love to Change the World” becoming a rallying cry for the adolescents as they begin their quest for identity. Even though the boys are accepted by their peers, the best friends feel like they don’t fit in.

The two teens discover the counterculture of the underground filled with electronic music, recreational drugs, and open sexuality, thanks to Gera’s feminist sister Rita (Ximena Romo) who fronts a darkwave band with boyfriend Tito (Americo Hollander). The driving beats underneath Rita’s spoken word recall British poet Anne Clark’s 1984 single “Our Darkness.” After Carlos, a whiz with electronics fixes Tito’s keyboard, Rita agrees to sneak the boys into her gig at the Aztec Lounge (if you grew up in Houston think of this bar as a substitute for Numbers on Westheimer).

The Aztec Lounge becomes a haven for the two friends especially Carlos who is taken under the wing of club owner Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro). He shows Carlos his Avant-Garde art and erotic photo collection of nude males, clearly, he’s attracted to the novice clubgoer, but Carlos is attracted to Gera’s older sister Rita. Both he and Gera will discover their sexual identity by the film’s end.

Sama’s film is autobiographical and like the director, I grew up in the same alternative dance club scene so I can vouch for its authenticity. From the look and feel of the Aztec to the songs by bands Joy Division, Clan of Xymox, Visage, and Roxy Music that pepper the soundtrack, Sama has impeccably captured a slice of life that existed between a John Hughes film and the world of Alex Cox’s “Repo Man.”

The performance art pieces in the film look and feel credible including one scene where a car belonging to someone’s father becomes the centerpiece for industrial music created by a jackhammer and sledgehammers tearing the car apart in perfect rhythm. Somebody alert Wax Trax! Records.

The supporting cast features Oscar-nominated actress Marina de Tavira (“Roma”) in an understated role as Carlos’ depressed mother and the director himself, Sama as uncle Esteban, a laid-back pot-smoking engineer who becomes a father figure and role model to Carlos.

The AIDS crisis which was boosted by injection drug users who found substitutes for heroin in mid-80s Mexico is touched upon as well as the unstable political climate as inflation doubled with no economic growth. The film gets its title from a scene where Nico is asked whether his collective wants to become real artists and if so, they need to stop copying the Europeans, “This is not Berlin.”

While not everyone will be able to relate to the counterculture world displayed in the film, everyone will be able to associate with various aspects of the film, whether it’s a dysfunctional family, being an outcast, or just the pressures of adolescence. “This Is Not Berlin” is a compelling film that accurately portrays a slice of adolescence rarely seen in cinema.

(3 ½ stars)

Joe Friar is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society.  He co-founded the Victoria Film Society and reviews films for Hit Radio 104.7 and the Victoria Advocate.

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