In what was meant to be just another day at work for a TV weatherman, Sean (Matt Bomer) breaks down on camera while forecasting the prolonging of a Los Angeles heatwave. He is clearly in denial of his psychological state and refuses to speak to therapists recommended by this friends. “It’s just my stomach,” he says. Sean suffers from depression and barely manages to grapple with the loneliness caused by the end of a long relationship with his former boyfriend, Carlos.
John Butler’s Papi Chulo, among other things, is about Sean’s dealing with his loneliness and trying to make sense of the vacuum left behind by his ex. It is about loss, recovery and the long winding road between the two. To see emotions of love, heartbreak and longing — things that have mostly been the focus of heterosexual love stories until recently — being portrayed within the context of homosexual love stories is in itself refreshing and most welcome.
When loneliness and the sound of silence become unbearable, Sean sells off the last remaining visual reminder of Carlos from their beautiful apartment in Eagle Rock; a Japanese tree that Carlos had placed on their deck. To make himself useful, Sean decides to repaint the deck after leaving multiple voicemails on Carlos’ answering machine; he was finally moving on and clearing out the last signs of their relationship, leaving voicemails to someone who never picks up the phone — a painful stage in breakups most people are all too familiar with.
It is in the hardware store that Sean meets Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño), a Mexican daily wage labourer, whom he employs to undertake the deck painting job. “Más de un día,” he says after looking at the deck; it’d take more than a day to complete the work. Sean’s face lights up as he finally has some company at home; the company of a man who doesn’t know who he is, what he does and what demons he fights. Sean goes out to buy lunch for them, takes Ernesto out boating and drops him off at the hardware store after paying him his wages. The newfound company of a man is finally able to pull Sean out of the pits of loneliness but leaves Ernesto more and more confused at the end of every working day. “To earn $200 for doing this? Me and my Catholic guilt!” he tells his wife over the phone while hiking with Sean.
More from Bedatri Datta Choudhury: TIFF 2018: The French Affair — A Review of Louis Garrel’s ‘A Faithful Man’
At a party, everyone assumes the two men to be a couple. “Where did you meet?” a friend asks Sean. “In the hardware store,” he replies. The friend says, “Oh, I get it, you don’t want to say you met on Grindr!”
In the touching scenes that follow, Ernesto, the seemingly grumpy, plump, Spanish-speaking Mexican man, fits right into the circle of a suave, gay Los Angeles men. The two sing along loudly to Madonna until Sean, caught in a moment of awkward drunkenness, makes Ernesto uncomfortable enough to not report for work the next day. When Sean fails to find a way out of his loneliness through heavy drinking and a random hookup, he decides to find Ernesto and regain the happiness he brought into his life.
Apart from fantastic performances from its cast, especially Bomer and Patiño, Papi Chulo’s biggest strength is the subtlety and grace with which it deals with the wide cross-section of issues it touches upon. Within Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant America, Butler goes to bat for Mexicans and paints them to be an intrinsic and undetachable part of the ethos in a city like Los Angeles and the larger country. Portraying a relationship between a rich, gay, white man with a poor, Mexican, straight man comes with its own sets of racial and class dynamics, and none of that is lost on Butler. In a country that is out to build walls, within a paranoid narrative of “bad hombres,” Ernesto is a sensitive and caring man who, in spite of his own discomforts, goes out of his way to help a man who can’t find a way out of his grief.
After viewing Papi Chulo, the deep layers of the narrative may keep one thinking about the many ways in which the film could’ve become preachy and silly, but it’s not. Butler’s film, the promise of rain after an eternal summer, is a narrative of hope and love that helps trump hate in today’s America.
Bedatri Datta Choudhury (@Bedatri) grew up in India and has studied Literature and Cinema at the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and New York University. She moonlights as a writer and likes writing on films, gender and culture. She lives in New York City and loves eating cake.