John Butler, a GFF veteran, returns to helm an Irish production a very American story: the friendship between a gay LA weatherman and a Mexican day labourer. Papi Chulo is not a film that will set the world alight but it’s heart-warming and hilarious, effortlessly depicting the breakdown of Sean (Matt Bomer) and his fixation on new pal Ernesto (Alejandro Patino). The film understands its environment, cautiously ridiculing Sean’s self-obsession and inherent dominance over Ernesto, despite his best efforts. However, the film never fully tackles this issue head on. Though Sean’s insecurities become a little tiresome and trope-heavy, the chemistry between Bomer and Patino carries the film through, leaving you with a big smile as the credits roll, even though you knew the direction the film was heading in long before.
As the film opens, we see Sean breaking down into tears live on air in hilarious fashion. He’s given leave to rest and recuperate by snarky station boss Ash (Wendi McLendon-Covey) but Sean couldn’t think of anything worse. He doesn’t want to confront his emotions surrounding a recent break-up, instead choosing to remove all trace of his former boyfriend, starting with the painting of his deck. Sean soon finds he’s useless at this and recruits Ernesto to paint it, but Sean seems far more interested in pampering Ernesto with lunch than getting the job finished. He wants his new employee to feel comfortable but ends up achieving the opposite. The following day, Sean decides that he and Ernesto will go for a rowing boat trip and save the painting for another day. Sean unloads his problems on Ernesto despite the fact his English is poor and he can’t understand most of what he’s saying.
Day after day, Ernesto tries to paint the deck but Sean has a new plan instead, like a hike or a party; Ernesto’s wife tells him it’s like Pretty Woman but Ernesto is Julia Roberts. Ernesto doesn’t seem to mind that Sean is gay, but it does make him the butt of jokes amongst his pals. Ernesto is happy to collect his money, despite his bemusement at his new employment and Sean’s over-the-top kindness.
Papi Chulo plays it safe in many ways, never fully exploiting its concept for maximum conflict but choosing to have that conflict happen on the fringes in the sniggers of the other labourers or the concerns of Sean’s friends. Sean’s obliviousness to the world of his new pal, and the fact that he even has a life outside of Sean drives the film forward. With another lens, Sean’s friendship could be seen as obsession and Butler does well to demonstrate that Sean needs help and needs to change. Although frustratingly this change is achieved mostly off-camera, though his realisation of his own shortcomings is cathartic. Bomer and Patino are fantastic though, conveying so much emotion through facial expression as they can’t communicate through language. Bomer in particular wears this congenial mask throughout which we see occasionally crack, depicting Sean’s fractured mental state.
The film feels like something from a by-gone era, understated and slow-burning but ultimately satisfying in its portrayal of an unlikely friendship. The acting is superb, and the dialogue is often funny but Papi Chulo avoids delving into the conflict of its own premise. This leaves the film light and heart-warming but prevents it from being elevated to a great film.
Ewan Wood | [rating=3]
Comedy, Drama | Ireland, 2018 | 15 | Glasgow Film Festival | Bankside Films | Dir. John Butler | Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patiño, Elena Campbell-Martinez