Movie Review: Papi Chulo (2018)

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When the heartbroken Sean (Matt Bomer) brings Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño) home to paint his deck, one of the first things that the Latino day laborer does is turn the light in the tool shed on. A light that Sean didn't even know he had because the shed was the domain of his ex, Ernesto's ability to find the light and turn it on with ease is something that the single weatherman desperately wants.

Except, having been sent home on leave when he suffered a breakdown live on air, in Sean's case, the light he needs to locate is the one that will put his life back on track. And in Irish writer-director John Butler's first American movie, Papi Chulo, it's a light that Sean thinks Ernesto might be just the right person to help him find.

A gently comic tale of unlikely friendship between a white, gay, well-to-do white collar weatherman and a straight, married Latino day laborer who barely speaks English, on the surface, of course, it's just the latest in a long line of films about white people learning to navigate life better with the aid of a new minority friend.

Impossibly, however, Chulo works much better than it should, thanks to the performances of its two charismatic leads as well as the sensitivity of Butler's writing. Giving Ernesto his own conflicting views on the proceedings that mostly come to light in English subtitled, Spanish phone exchanges with his wife, Butler never lets us forget about the unequal power dynamic that exists between the two men.

Likewise, refusing to sugarcoat just how flawed Sean is (from mildly annoying to dangerously alarming), much like the winds of Santa Ana that he was covering when he broke into uncontrollable sobs on air, Butler's film is propelled by a strong undercurrent of sadness, both owing to the end of Sean's recent serious relationship as well as the feeling of loneliness that only a film set in L.A. can exude.

Waiting until an hour into the ninety-eight minute running time to let us in on a key detail that might have otherwise colored our understanding of the situation as early as the very first scene, Chulo meanders off course within its last act.

Focusing more on Bomer's lead, which makes us feel the absence of Patiño onscreen as acutely as Sean does, when the film veers away from the home court advantage of Sean's upper class existence to give us an all too brief glimpse of Ernesto's world, we feel the imbalance of power even more, which paints their dynamic in a new, melancholy light.

Bonded by a genuine affection for one another that transcends backgrounds, Butler reminds us that although the two men have fun singing Madonna's "Borderline" together in the backseat of a Lyft, the realities of their situations are vastly different, and we live in a world that wants to keep those border(lines) separate.

From the casual racism hurled at Ernesto where people make Driving Miss Daisy jokes to a grocery store employee mistaking one Latino day laborer for another, although as a gay man, Sean knows a thing or two about prejudice, it's nothing compared to what Ernesto endures on any given day. And while the aggressively friendly, lonely Sean latches onto Ernesto right away, Butler doesn't let you imagine that they're suddenly pals.

In a early scene that most would play simply for laughs, Sean takes the older man boating on what he views as a break but Ernesto (of course) considers work, insisting upon rowing the weatherman around the lake just like he insisted upon carrying the equipment from the hardware store into the house when Sean first brought him home.

In fact, it isn't until the two bond over family during a hike that we feel as though we're seeing "off the clock" Ernesto, even if he's still on it, and this duality keeps the film from playing like a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie from the 1990s.

Talking in paragraphs as he gives voice to his insecurities (even if Ernesto can't understand much of anything that Sean says), although the two do form a tentative friendship, we never forget that much of it is just what Sean is projecting onto a man to whom he pays two hundred dollars daily for his time. Liking Sean but needing the money, Ernesto feels similarly conflicted, and we know before they do that eventually these issues will need to be addressed.

Masquerading as just another chronicle of friendship against the odds, Papi Chulo is a film with much more on its mind than typical genre fare. Refreshing on the one hand, it's frustrating on the other when we discover that, just like the movie's characters don't know how to translate and decipher the words and thoughts of one another, it's clear that Butler doesn't know quite what it is in Chulo that he wants to say.

Brought to life by its immensely likable leads, while it's Sean's arc we follow from start to finish (and Bomer's star power could light up the entire state of California), Butler definitely misses out by not devoting more time to Ernesto, which is evident when the film falters in the home stretch.

A sweet, simple story told with dark complexity, in Papi Chulo, Sean takes the long way around to realize that, whether in a tool shed or on the water, we all must find our own source of light. Luckily however, the search goes much better if we keep our hearts open and bring someone along to guide the way.

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