“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” well-acted winner

A tender and well-acted romance-cum-coming-of-age story, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” is the tale of two young men facing daunting challenges growing up in El Paso, Texas in the late 1980s. Aristotle Mendoza (tall newcomer Max Pelayo) is a lanky loner with anger issues. His parents Liliana (Mexican acting royalty Veronica Falcon) and Jaime (ditto for Eugenio Derbez, “Instructions Not Included”) are humble, hard-working folk. They do not want to discuss Ari’s older brother Bernardo, who is in jail for something we will learn about later. Ari likes Batman, the Hulk and Spider-Man. In other words, he’s into “the dark.” The more sensitive, cheerful and outgoing Dante Quintero (Reese Gonzalez) has been raised by a father named Sam (Kevin Alejandro), who is a professor of literature, and a glamorous and expressive mother named Soledad (Eva Longoria).

Aristotle aka Ari and Dante meet at a public pool, where the less beefy Dante teaches the long and tall and less extroverted Ari how to swim. They become unlikely, close friends. Ari has a romantic clinch with a local beauty, who then puts him off by telling him she has a boyfriend who is in a gang.

“I’m not scared.” he boasts. “You should be,” she says trying to put him right. Dante, meanwhile, who sketches and has a room big enough for a sofa, a stereo, a TV and a guitar, has struggles concerning his sexuality. We hear in a voice-over that he thinks he likes boys and wants to tell his father. He hasn’t told Ari. In the meantime, the Quintanas take Ari on a camping trip where Dante and Ari peer through a telescope at a part of the crystal night sky. Ari gets a job flipping burgers and frying fries at a local “Charcoaler.” His father gives him a rusted, but usable 1957 Chevy pickup truck. Ari observes that it is “very Mexican,” but he is delighted. Dante, who is obsessed with Theodore Gericoult’s 1818 famous painting “The Raft of the Medusa” and reads the poetry of William Carlos Williams, doesn’t need a job.

In spite of that long, annoying title “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” is a sensitive, well-written film about a complicated friendship suddenly threatened by an even more complicated sexual issues. Will Aristotle and Dante’s friendship survive the new developments?

Writer-director Aitch Alberto, whose only previous film (“Hara Kiri”) I have not seen, weaves quite a web. What her story lacks in drama it makes up for in detail. Ari has a beloved aunt (Marlene Forte) , who visits him in the hospital after he is injured, but she lives a distance away from the rest of the family. We will find out why. As Ari’s “frenemy” and classmate Gina, Isabella Gomez (“One Day at a Time”) has screen presence to burn. “Aristotle and Dante,” which includes Lin-Manuel Miranda and Kyra Sedgwick among its producers, is about the scars and complications that we endure and resolve growing up. In the background on TV screens, we see images of protesters demonstrating against the government’s response to AIDS. Will Aristotle and Dante survive the raft they share?

(“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” contains sexually suggestive language, violence, teen drinking and mature themes)


“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”

Rated PG-13. At the AMC Boston Common, Liberty Tree Mall and other suburban theaters. Grade: B+


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