For all Hollywood is making slow, halting steps towards increased diversity in film, we still have a long way to go—just ask Asian Emma Stone in Aloha or Asian Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell. Or, for that matter, all the films and franchises guilty of that tired old “we’re a metaphor for oppressed people but 90% of our main characters are straight and white” chestnut. (coughX-Mencough) If you’re looking for films about experiences of the non-straight white male variety—if you think that diversity in film is important, particularly in a time when millions of people voted for a sexist, racist bigot—films like Moonlight, Straight Outta Compton and the Fast and Furious franchise are there for you, but for the most part you’re going to want to seek out independent films by directors not as bound by the studio system’s institutionalized homogeneity.
Over the last eleven months, we’ve written about some of those films in our 52 Films by Women series, like Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, Amma Asante’s Belle and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. This week we highlight another one: Mosquita y Mari, an LGBT coming-of-age romance about a pair of Chicana teens growing up in Los Angeles’ Huntington Park neighborhood. A modest film lacking any big names, it garnered attention on the festival circuit—in 2012 it actually became the first feature narrative by a Chicana director to screen at Sundance—before getting a small theatrical release, garnering two Independent Spirit Award nominations, and slinking out of the spotlight.
But just because Mosquita y Mari is small-profile doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing. It’s a sweet, affecting film, one that depicts the blush of first love in a realistic fashion, which is to say it’s lacking in overblown melodrama. (Though I dunno, teens in love can be pretty melodramatic. They’re not here, though.)
Mosquito y Mari should be realistic: It’s based on the life of its writer/director, Aurora Guerrero. Guerrero’s fictional stand-in is Yolanda (Fenessa Pineda), nicknamed “Mosquita” due to her timid, nervous energy. Studious almost to a fault, Mosquita’s parents have impressed upon her since day one the importance of getting a good education, on the grounds that if she goes to college she’ll have a better life than they did. It makes sense, but all the same, Mosquita’s day-to-day existence is stifling: she studies all the time and can’t go out with friends without her mother giving her the third degree about whether she’s done with her homework.
A much-needed jolt to Mosquita’s stagnant life comes in the form of Mari (Venecia Troncoso), a new student who moves in across the street. The daughter of an undocumented single mother who works such long hours she doesn’t have much time to spare for her children, Mari has built up a protective crust over the years. She’s angry, abrasive, and doesn’t care much about school. Why would she, when the system’s all but written her off and she has to spend most of her free time handing out flyers to help her mom with the rent anyway? The two girls forge a strong bond, Mosquita tutoring Mari and Mari in turn bringing Mosquita out of her shell.
The LGBT angle here is low-key and achingly bittersweet. The “thing” that’s emerging between Mosquita y Mari is never spoken of—it’s so delicate, and so impossible due to the reality in which the two girls are living, that it’s safer to not say anything at all. Instead, we get pained glances when they catch each other with boys and an interrupted moment of intimacy in Mosquita’s living room. There’s no Hollywood ending here, no Mosquita and Mari telling naysayers to shove it and riding off into the sunset thanks to a Deus Ex College Scholarship for Mari. The possibilities of youth don’t always come to a pat, Hollywood conclusion. (And indeed, they shouldn’t? How many movies do you watch where the main characters hook up for their happy ending and you just know they’re going to be miserable ten years down the line?) That was the case with Guerrera, who remembers her relationship with the real-life Mari as “a very beautiful love story that we had when we were young. We never put words to it, and I never gave it its proper place in my life as my first love… Even if we don’t put a label on it, it doesn’t take away what it was. And it was very special, and it was very intimate, and it changed my life. It might not have changed her life. But it changed mine.”
Mosquita y Mari is available to rent on iTunes.