‘José’ Review: Coming of Age Gay in Guatemala

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A teenager uses online romantic connections to escape the oppression of his hometown.


José lives with his face perpetually buried in his phone — typical teenage behavior, though this isn’t a typical coming-of-age film. Wedged between adolescence and adulthood, José (the excellent Enrique Salanic, in one of his first films) lives with his mother in a home always dimly lit, usually by the yellowish glow of streetlights.

His mother (Ana Cecilia Mota, in her first feature) leaves before sunrise to sell sandwiches near a bus station; José works at a restaurant, stealing away at break time to check his phone, and sneaking looks during dinner at home. He barely speaks, living a secret second life, hooking up with male strangers and lying about coming home late.

Directed by Li Cheng, who wrote the script with George F. Roberson, the film delicately depicts the hardship of being gay in a Catholic culture and the pressure for machismo in a crime-ridden country. José eventually meets Luis, a migrant construction worker with whom he finds an immediate connection. In a beautiful montage, they ride away on a motorcycle and exchange kisses in a field, the sickening yellow aura replaced by golden sunshine. It’s a tonal standout of the film, a blissful reprieve in cinematography and performance.

Salanic mostly plays José with quiet but weighted contemplation, but here he is buoyant with youth and the prospect of romance. Soon the conversation turns to their future. Luis wants them to run away, but José, who struggles with intimacy, remains tethered to his home and especially his mother. Mobility doesn’t come easy for this not-quite man, who is cemented by both obligation and fear of change.

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