Aristotle is a loner, quiet and unsure of himself. Dante is outgoing, confident and friendly. They meet at a swimming pool when Dante notices that Aristotle doesn’t know how to swim and offers to teach him. Over the course of the summer, they become increasingly close, beginning a friendship that changes both of their lives.
This is the plot of the teen drama Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (based on the 2012 novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz). It is a touching and sweet look at sexual/ethnic identity struggles among two Mexican boys in late 1980s El Paso. It is also meandering and unconvincing, with a major character whose emotions don’t evolve in the way the story seems to think they do.
Dante is an interesting character, full of conflicting feelings and fascinated by the world. Aristotle starts off timid, shielding himself from the judgment he senses coming at him from everywhere. By the end, he is supposed to have opened himself up to the beauty and endless possibilities of existence, due to the influence of his friend. Yet, to me, he still seemed closed off, angry and lacking conviction, which sort of goes against the idea of the conclusion. He has a late revelation that is unsurprising with the way the plot unfolds, but feels unearned since his evolution isn’t shown convincingly. That’s a shame because it holds this back from being truly affecting.
That left me kind of frustrated. There are definitely things I really liked about Aristotle and Dante (91 minutes, minus the end credits). The friendship between the boys is believable and tender. The direction, by Aitch Alberto, is simple and unobtrusive, allowing for some wonderful, understated moments where they bond. The performances are pretty good, with an energetic Reese Gonzales as Dante being the standout. His joy is infectious. You can absolutely see why Aristotle would be enthralled by him. It is easy to get invested in their relationship.
Then, the summer ends and Dante leaves for a year. That is when the movie began to stumble. Though both of their names are in the title, Aristotle is the protagonist. Everything is being seen and experienced through his eyes. His story just isn’t as intriguing without Dante in it. We are told, by the time Dante returns, that Aristotle has changed a lot during the year. But has he? I guess he tries to make other friends, though that subplot goes nowhere and doesn’t add much to his arc. This is when things drag.
Dante, on the other hand, whose story we hear through letters he writes to Aristotle, undergoes a significant change. He actually is a different person when he makes it back to El Paso. This is probably how it goes in the book as well, yet it feels like the real drama is happening offscreen while we’re stuck watching Aristotle work as a fry cook and go to an uneventful party.
The last act isn’t as magical as the first one. There is a sense that the characters are no longer kids. They’re discovering who they are and the consequences, good and bad, that come with it. It could have been very moving, if I had not felt like Aristotle was still holding the world at arm’s length. It is a good story, but Alberto couldn’t quite get a grasp on Aristotle. That is too big a flaw for the movie to fully overcome, even though Dante’s quest to discover the secrets of the universe is enjoyable.
3 out of 5
Max Pelayo as Aristotle Mendoza
Reese Gonzales as Dante Quintana
Veronica Falcón as Liliana Mendoza
Eugenio Derbez as Jaime Mendoza
Kevin Alejandro as Sam Quintana
Eva Longoria as Soledad Quintana
Directed and Written by Aitch Alberto