12th October 2018 6.30pm at Vue West End
13th October 2018 3.15pm at odeontcr: Odeon Tottenham Court Road
20th October 2018 8.30pm at Rich Mix
As the blazing hot sun beats down on another day in LA during the opening scene of John Butler’s Papi Chulo, weatherman Sean (Matt Bomer) has the sunny smile to match. But from deep within a thunder is rumbling, and as his carefree Calfornia facade begins to crack, he breaks down live on television. To begin with, as we watch a stranger frantically fumble through the forecast whilst strangling back sobs, it’s a surprisingly comical scenario. Once we become acquainted with the loss which triggered this meltdown, however, the film invokes a powerful pathos which finds the perfect balance between humour and heart.
As Sean is faced with some crushing news from his boss – that he is being forced to take some of his leave – he returns reluctantly to an empty apartment. Despite removing all memories of his former partner, including a large potted plant, the protagonist is left with one physical reminder: an unpainted circle on the decking where the tree once stood. Determined to fix the problem, he hires Ernesto (Alejandro Patino) to repaint the entire patio. But the handyman soon becomes more than an employee to Sean, who tries to use him to patch over something far bigger.
Butler’s movie hinges on the remarkable chemistry between Bomer and Patino. The former’s unrelenting monologues and endlessly endearing enthusiasm are perfectly punctuated by the latter’s looks of utter bewilderment – he doesn’t understand English, after all. But even in Ernesto’s nod of agreement that Sean is indeed “loco”, there is a deeper understanding. A gloriously unlikely relationship develops in spite of the language barrier.
Indeed, this picture posits some interesting questions which deconstruct preconceptions of sexuality and race. Ernesto is subjected to cultural ignorance on a regular basis, reduced to another nameless worker, but beneath the stereotype is a family man with stories to tell. Both characters open each other up to new and alien worlds but they are linked by the fragility of their masculinity: Sean keeps his emotions suppressed along with expectations, and hints of homophobia creep into play when Ernesto’s masculinity becomes threatened. The human thread, which transcends prejudice and bridges social spheres, is loneliness.
Despite these big themes, however, the visuals do not scream for the big screen. While the screenplay is charming, the imagery never really brings the extra dimension, which is needed to elevate the piece to cinematic proportions. There are some exceptions: a beautifully lit rowboat scene pays knowing homage to the romcom; wide vistas of LA allude to the superficial sheen which is as inconsequential as a glossy new coat of paint. Perhaps this is why the movie lacks a certain Hollywood polish. Nonetheless, thanks to a sharp screenplay and a captivating cast, this is a lovely film that bubbles with warmth and infectious laughter.
Papi Chulo does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.