Directed by John Butler. Starring Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patino, Elena Campbell-Martinez, Wendi McLendon-Covey.
The Plot: Sunny Los Angeles weatherman Sean (Matt Bomer) has a very public meltdown while giving a forecast. It’s stormy weather for him, as his boss Ash (Wendi McLendon-Covey) asks him to take a leave of absence to pull himself together. Sean has been pining for his ex-boyfriend for some time and feels very alone in his trendy glass house overlooking the city of the angels. That’s when his eyes lock on Mexican day labourer Ernesto (Alejandro Patino) outside a hardware store. Sean brings him home to work on painting his deck. Ernesto is an older, straight family man who knows little English. He humours Sean’s overly eager friendliness and need for companionship. They strike up an unlikely friendship despite cultural and language differences. But just what is eating away at Sean to cause an early mid-life crisis?
The Verdict: For his third feature film, Irish writer/director John Butler has jetted off to the sun-baked shores of California for a deceptively simple story of male friendship. It follows similar themes in his previous films The Stag and Handsome Devil. Whereas they were homegrown films with local actors, Papi Chulo finds Butler as an outsider looking in to the current state of America and its relationship with migrants, particularly those of Mexican heritage. Not that he intended any sort of outright political message against the current President and his policies towards migrants from the beginning. It’s more that those events happened to the film, giving it the added bonus of timely relevance. At its heart, it’s a cosy crowd-pleaser which revels in its lovely depiction of two very different men at different stages in their lives bonded by their common humanity.
For reasons that aren’t fully explained until later in the film, Sean is something of a mess. He outwardly projects confidence and charisma, played with note-perfect sincerity by chiselled Armie Hammer lookalike Matt Bomer. There’s a funny / sad aspect to his on-air breakdown and subsequent behaviour, when he’s more interested in hanging out with Ernesto than getting the job done. The duo go off for hikes and boat trips. It’s the human connection that Sean is looking for, that sense of loneliness in, strangely, a city of nearly 4 million people. Butler veers a bit too close to making Sean pathetic, especially when he awkwardly gatecrashes a party. However, Butler pulls him back just in time to make the audience sympathetic.
Ernesto is the opposite – self-assured, straightforward, bemused but not unfeeling towards this privileged white man who has come into his life. Patino’s unassuming and often funny performance takes on other dimensions, though they’re not fully explored. The vague-sounding title could refer to Ernesto, but his home life is only briefly sketched. More character development would have been welcome here, particularly his warmly cheeky relationship with his wife. However, it would be churlish to pick away at the film’s faults when it has so many well-written scenes that hit home time and again. Backed up by his talented actors and the painterly eye of his cinematographer Cathal Watters (who captures that golden-brown LA sunlight with ease), Butler has delivered his best film to date. It warms the heart while touching on very human issues of identity, friendship and moving on from loss. Papi Chulo is a Californian charmer.