In Papi Chulo, director John Butler manages to weave an intricate story around the unlikely friendship between L.A. weatherman Sean (Matt Bomer) and Mexican labourer Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño). Though the film is set in L.A., there’s no place for the Hollywood sign; Butler has revealed that it was edited out. Ironically, this speaks to the kind of authenticity that permeates through the film’s setting, relationships and characters.
We open with Sean breaking down on live television as he forecasts an unrelenting heatwave. Butler encourages empathy with Sean and attempts to find humour in the reaction of the production crew – this is a balance which the film manages to maintain throughout. It’s rare to see a man suffer such an emotional breakdown on screen and the film provides a subtle critique as Sean is offered time away from work as his boss worries his unravelling may have “caused the viewers distress”.
As Sean reluctantly accepts enforced gardening leave and refuses to seek help, there is an examination of the stigma which still exists around speaking to mental-health professionals. It’s refreshing to see, particularly in a film reliant upon comedy as a means of levity, that a visit to male strip club is used to convey Sean’s strife, rather than being played for laughs. It speaks to the story’s integrity and honesty and that it avoids playing a clichéd representation of a gay character.
Sean instead finds solace with day labourer Ernesto, who barely understands English and whom Sean has hired to paint his decking of the house he’s selling, which he had lived in with his previous partner. Patiño’s ability to convey emotional responses through facial expressions enriches the films humour, which could easily fall flat were a different actor playing the role. Sean’s growing desire for human connection to heal the wounds left by his previous relationship leads him to pay Ernesto to spend time with him, dragging him along on rowing and hiking trips. As their friendship blossoms, Sean leaves Carlos a voicemail suggesting he’s met someone new. These unanswered phone calls to his ex-partner puncture each day Sean spends with Ernesto and build tension as Sean begins to fantasise about his happily married friend.
It becomes obvious that this bond is just a port in the storm for Sean. Ernesto manages to thrive at the parties he attends despite the language barrier. Butler cited ‘Lost in Translation’ as one of several inspirations on the film and its influence can be recognised in one of its most impactful scenes where Sean and Ernesto take an Uber ride home from the party and perform a duet of Madonna’s ‘Borderline’. However, as Sean pushes things too far he drives Ernesto away and in doing so, initiates a deluge of despair.
What starts out as a heart-warming story of male friendship instead takes on far greater significance as the extent of Sean’s separation from his ex-partner, Carlos, becomes more evident. With the knowledge of these circumstances, Sean’s situation becomes all the more tragic as he exhausts every avenue in his attempts to avoid dealing with the emotional baggage he carries. This heaviness could be oppressive, so it’s a relief that Papi Chulo’s comedy manages to provide respite from the turmoil which Sean finds himself in, whilst helping to enhance the bond between the two protagonists. Their connection transcends sexuality, class and racial divides managing to establish a relationship between two men which is rooted in an emotional understanding between one another, something unique and largely unseen in contemporary cinema.
By Andrew McKissock