Dante (Reese Gonzalez) insists on taking off his shoes before stepping into Aristotle’s (Max Pelayo) house for the first time in “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” noting the Japanese tradition that prevents one from bringing dirt into someone else’s home. Still, it seems inevitable that Dante is going to leave a mark, if for no other reason than the fact that this is El Paso in 1987 and such practices are hardly common in the neighborhood. This is undoubtedly why Aristotle, or Ari for short, finds himself drawn to Dante, who hardly resembles his classmates who are eager to demonstrate their masculinity at every opportunity, something he was discouraged from himself after his brother Bernardo went to prison for beating someone to death. There’s plenty to read into the fact he meets Dante at the local pool while struggling in the water and teaches him to swim in Aitch Alberto’s adaptation of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s young adult favorite where both are threatened to drown under the expectations of their community, but can float when they’re together, a metaphor that will either come off as enchanting or a little too on the nose for some.
For most, it’ll likely be the former as the pairing of Pelayo and Gonzales is a winning combo, first becoming fast friends perhaps because of rather than in spite of the vast differences between them when Ari and Dante come from very different sides of the track. While Ari’s house has been a largely silent one since his brother Bernardo’s incarceration, Dante’s is filled with love with his parents Soledad (Eva Longoria) and Sam (Kevin Alejandro) inviting Ari out for camping trips in no time. However, after one intense summer together, they need to spend the next apart when Sam is invited to teach a semester at the University of Chicago and their connection becomes one of letters, which Alberto employs to create a fascinating dichotomy when Dante’s thoughts about life in Chicago, where he struggles with his sexuality, are laid over Ari going through the motions of a high school student’s life in El Paso where time-honored traditions of fighting and courting aren’t optional.
The strength of this formal conceit along with the real sense of intimacy that Alberto draws out between the pair is enough to lose yourself in their relationship that neither one can quite bring themselves to say is a romance, though it would seem to head in that direction. This inevitability is a bit of a double-edged sword when being able to see something about Dante and Ari that they can’t yet for themselves makes it interesting to witness them fighting against their instincts, but ends up disrupting the gentle build that Alberto carefully constructs up to an eventual reckoning where a series of confrontations come off as ticked off boxes. There is too much to admire about “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” to get hung up on its rushed third act, and its great strength is its sensitivity, chronicling a relationship that may not last forever, but certainly will live on that long as a formative experience for those involved and by letting audiences in so tenderly, it’s bound to stay in a few others’ minds as well.
“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” will screen again at the Toronto Film Festival at the Scotiabank on September 11th at 3 pm and September 15th at 9:45 pm. It will also be available virtually throughout Canada beginning September 13th through the end of the festival.