PAPI CHULO

★★★

A DEEP, DARK COMEDY DEALING WITH LGBT MENTAL HEALTH

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Charlie David Page
1st June 2019

Matt Bomer (‘Magic Mike’ franchise, ‘The Magnificent Seven’, and recently Will’s love interest in TV’s ‘Will & Grace’) is becoming an increasingly recognisable presence on our screens. As an openly gay man in Hollywood, it’s also admirable to see him taking on more roles that represent his sexuality. His latest is in the indie film ‘Papi Chulo’ - and this time around, he’s showing his full acting abilities in a profoundly complex offering.

Sean (Bomer) is a weatherman for a local Los Angeles television station. Dealing with the departure of his long-term partner Carlos, Sean suffers an on-air breakdown worthy of viral fame. Ordered on leave by his boss, Sean is lost and lonely in his empty, sprawling home until he hires Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño), a married, middle-aged Latino migrant worker, to help him around the house. With a language gap between the two, Sean actually finds Ernesto to be a great listener for his problems. But as their friendship grows, Matt’s feelings for Ernesto begin to blur.

‘Papi Chulo’ is described as a black comedy, but the source of its humour lies largely in Sean’s desperation and unwillingness to adhere to boundaries. This is a surreal story based in reality; in a rom-com, this would have been normal fare, but here it’s deliberately awkward and exponentially melancholy. Sean wants to do cute things with Ernesto like hire a row-boat on a lake or invite him to a party with his gay friends, but rather than coming off as cute it initially leaves Ernesto baffled and reserved. All the while, Sean is essentially paying Ernesto to be his friend or date - yet another element that makes Sean appear pathetic, but still you can’t help but feel empathetic for him.

'PAPI CHULO' TRAILER

It’s clear Sean is not over Carlos, made evident by his constant calls to his former partner. As time goes on, it’s also obvious that Sean is projecting Carlos onto Ernesto - they’re both older Latino men, and Sean even confides in Ernesto that married men are a weakness of his. Nonetheless, Ernesto never exhibits homophobia towards Sean - and nor does Ernesto’s wife Linda (Elena Campbell-Martinez), the first to point out Sean might be interested in Carlos. Rather, Ernesto expresses compassion and pity for Sean, and tries to be the best friend he can under the circumstances.

The film is written and directed by John Butler, the man behind the excellent queer film ‘Handsome Devil’, but this couldn’t be more different in tone and subject. It deals heavily with the issue of mental health, particularly from the point of view of a gay man. As Sean increasingly spirals out of control, he doesn’t know how to ask for help, and the advice he’s given from friends and work colleagues is repeatedly disregarded. This results in a series of disastrous events, as the film twists from a distorted rom-rom into something much darker and more sombre.

The transition between almost unwatchable awkwardness and respectful friendship is largely to the credit of Matt Bomer and Alejandro Patiño’s on-screen partnership.

The transition between almost unwatchable awkwardness and respectful friendship is largely to the credit of Bomer and Patiño’s on-screen partnership. As men from two different worlds, they have nothing in common - language, age, sexuality, interests - and yet they find a way to connect. Bomer plays the gay LA stereotype (sometimes relying on the archetype a little too heavily, although the screenplay is also to blame for this), but he manages to retain the audience’s sympathy in spite of all of the drama and antics. Patiño’s Ernesto is a man dragged into this world - at first unwillingly - and his everyman performance is the perfect balance to Sean’s absurdity, remaining grounded and acting as the audience’s guide through the film.

Full of dark revelations and scattered with offbeat satire, ‘Papi Chulo’ has an important message to share about mental health. Its pacing isn’t perfect and the result is a story that lags at times, but this film bravely tells a story rarely seen on screen, let alone from within the LGBT community. And fear not - despite its heavy subject, it finishes with a happy ending that’s both fitting and still grounded in reality. ‘Papi Chulo’ is an important start to a discussion that requires a much larger conversation.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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