There’s an offbeat charm to the low-key American comedy-drama Papi Chulo, which gets under the skin as it explores some deep emotional themes with a light touch. After premiering at Toronto International Film Festival, the movie has been playing at festivals around the world, including London’s BFI Flare. It’s an engaging story anchored by a sensitive, earthy performance from Matt Bomer.
He plays gay Los Angeles weatherman Sean, who is still reeling after a painful breakup. One day he has a breakdown on the air, so his boss (Wendi McLendon-Covey) tells him to take some time off, urging him to find someone he can talk to. Sean has a few ongoing projects around his house, so he heads to a local hardware shop for supplies. There he spots middle-aged day worker Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño) outside, and hires him to repaint his sun deck. Ernesto speaks very little English, so hasn’t a clue what Sean is saying as he chats incessantly on a variety of topics. Sean feels like he’s sharing his pain with someone, and having Ernesto around helps him cope with his loneliness. But Ernesto is perplexed when Sean wants to hang out socially as well, introducing Ernesto to his friends as if he’s a new boyfriend. Ernesto’s feisty wife Linda (Elena Campbell-Martinez) thinks this is hilarious, at least until Sean starts getting a bit too close for comfort.
Irish writer-director John Butler lets all of this play out with a sly smile, finding humour in the characters rather than the situations. As Sean and Ernesto develop this offbeat friendship, and especially as the script reveals more about these two men, it becomes increasingly clear that Sean really needs some professional help. Even as things get more deeply emotional, the film remains honest and optimistic, carefully avoiding mawkishness and melodrama. There are constant reminders that Sean’s friends care about him, and even Ernesto begins to understand that Sean’s pain needs more than a silent listener.
Bomer delivers a remarkably layered performance as a smart man who has pushed his emotions down inside and can’t quite understand why his life seems to be spiralling out of control. He keeps hoping he won’t have to confront his feelings, putting a stiff smile on his face and making clumsy conversation with everyone he meets. So Sean’s real connection with Ernesto is a nice surprise, and Patiño plays him with a terrific sense of wry humour. They make a superb odd couple, and each of their outings around town adds a witty touch to their quirky friendship.
It’s refreshing to see a Los Angeles-set gay movie that isn’t positioned in the artificiality of West Hollywood. Butler even gives the usual locations in Silverlake and Runyon Canyon a fresh twist, while Sean’s home in Eagle Rock feels isolated from the city, complete with howling coyotes. The film also makes cleverly realistic use of dating apps and easy sex. So if the plot sometimes feels like it’s a little pushy, Papi Chulo’s relaxed pacing and gently gurgling themes make it both involving and memorable.