Until very recently, lesbian films centered on teenage characters tended toward melodrama. High school romances often ended in tragedy, plot devices often trumped young love, and well-meaning filmmakers were thwarted by various realities of the movie business. Many of these movies were also lily-white, with young women of color typically filling minor roles, if any.
Then Pariah and Circumstance came out last year, throwing all of the stereotypes out the door and presenting worlds that felt genuine, with characters that were believable, vulnerable teens. Joining this list is Mosquita y Mari, portraying an intense teenage relationship between two Chicana girls in the Huntington Park neighborhood of L.A. It’s about as real and honest a film as we’ve seen in recent years, with a script that invites you completely inside the movie’s world, and young stars who fill their roles with equal weight and youthful exuberance.
Yolanda (Fenessa Pineda) is a studious 15-year-old daughter of Mexican-American immigrants. She has friends in school, but isn’t terribly excited by them. She goes to their parties as a sort of teen default, but she always makes it back home in time and plasters her refrigerator doors with As, to her strict (but loving) parents’ delight. She’s always the first to figure out the answers in class, but her overworked teachers have enough to deal with in the crowded system.
She drifts happily enough through her existence until an intriguing new neighbor moves in across the street. Mari (Venecia Troncoso) is aloof and pouty – the picture of teenage cool. When Yolanda over-enthusiastically offers to share her textbook in class, Mari calls her an annoying fly – a mosquita – and it’s not until Yolanda saves her from trouble (when she nearly gets caught smoking up in the school bathroom) that a friendship blossoms between them.
What begins as a friendly deal to help Mari succeed in school soon takes a life of its own. The girls establish their own hangout in an abandoned garage, they study and talk about life for hours on end. They hang out in each other’s houses, walk to school together, and basically, in all the ways that really matter, live together.
The relationship is intense from the start. In one early scene, Mari changes in front of a mirror while Yolanda looks on, attracted (and clearly confused). Jealousies spark when either of the girls receives attention from boys, and their relationship becomes more and more physically affectionate as time marches on. It plays out realistically, with scenes that portray the girls toeing the line between friendly gestures and something much more sexual.
While staying completely within the framework of a personal coming-of-age story, Mosquita y Mari manages to say quite a bit in its 80 minute running time. The way Mari’s upbringing contrasts with Yolanda’s is particularly telling. Mari’s mother works long hours at a minimum wage job, and Mari feels a strong sense of responsibility to help out financially, taking a job handing out flyers at a local business. She takes care of her younger sister in their mother’s absence, and feels the pressure from all sides. Yolanda, by contrast, has a more financially stable household, but her parents are just as demanding, requiring her to pull straight A’s so that she may go on to college and a high-paying career. Masterfully, both sides of the immigrant experience are presented, and events towards the end of the film shine a particularly sharp light on what that contrast can mean for young people – young girls in particular.
The words “lesbian” or “queer” are never used throughout the movie, but this is very much a film about identity, and it’s clear that the girls are very much in love with one another. Where it all gets (realistically) muddy is in the context – what exactly does that mean to a 15-year-old girl struggling with other aspects of her identity?
Through subtle, smart writing and natural, nearly invisible acting, writer/director Aurora Guerrero and her young stars have crafted something incredible. There isn’t a false note in the piece – every moment, every object in every scene and every bit of bilingual dialogue feels like it belongs right where it is. And while it contains some heavy subject matter and gritty truths, it’s also a very funny, sweet and vibrant production. When the girls walk down the street sharing earbuds, or sail by the train tracks riding one bike, it’s impossible not to smile.
Enough good things cannot be said of Pineda and Tronsoco who aren’t so much playing their roles as living them. A film this honest lives and dies by its leads, and here, it thrives on the authenticity of our young stars’ performances.
It’s no surprise that the film is getting major buzz at Sundance at the moment, nor is it a shock to learn that the script was itself workshopped at the festival when Guerrero was selected as a Sundance Institute/Ford Foundation film fellow six years ago. Unlike so many projects that languish over time or get ruined by the “too many chefs” problem, it seems Mosquita y Mari has instead been handled carefully and crafted nearly to perfection.