Papi Chulo is surprisingly affecting despite its creator’s tendencies to easy visual metaphors like heat, rain and a hole.
Offering a quiet take on grief, loss, race and class, writer-director John Butler’s Papi Chulo is surprisingly affecting despite its creator’s tendencies to easy visual metaphors like heat, rain and a hole. Set in Los Angeles, the film opens on Sean (Matt Bomer), a slickly-dressed local weatherman whose emotional breakdown is broadcast live from Santa Monica to Burbank. Sean is mourning the end of his long term relationship with Carlos (Kevin Sifuentes), a spectral character that haunts the film from Sean’s perspective. It’s been six months of workaholism as distraction for the weatherman, but the monotony of telling Los Angeles that the weather will be hot and sunny all week finally breaks Sean and he is given time off.
Sean and Carlos shared a beautiful home in the hills of Silver Lake, overlooking the city. A potted tree that stands in the center of their deck, sturdy and beautiful, represented the last of Carlos, and Sean has it removed. Like their relationship, the tree stood for some time and its removal reveals an unpainted circle on the otherwise sky blue deck. With nothing but time and an obsessive streak, Sean leaves a voicemail for Carlos about the fate of the tree then sets about painting over the blatant symbol, which leads to still more metaphor: Sean is a mess, so he makes a mess of this project.
Enter Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño), a 55-year old day laborer Sean chooses from the throng of Latino men looking for work outside a hardware store. Using the little English and Spanish both men know, they come to terms on Ernesto’s hourly rate and the fact that it will take more than one day to do the work properly. Ernesto explains that the deck needs to be sanded before it gets repainted. He comes to wish that he just painted over the hole. Thanks to unresolved grief, white guilt and loneliness, Sean starts paying Ernesto to be his friend.
This conceit is as uncomfortable as it sounds. Ernesto becomes Sean’s silent sounding board for the weatherman’s now outer monologue while Sean misplaces his emotions everywhere. Unlike Sean’s calls, Ernesto’s to his wife, Linda (Elena Campbell-Martinez) offer a respite from all the squirm-inducing madness and assurances that at least one of the two men is emotionally grounded. Ernesto makes it clear at the end of every day that he is there to get paid and belongs to a world far outside Sean’s experience. He literally points to it far off in the distance when the two men stand high atop the hiking trails at Griffith Park.
Sean is a difficult character to play, but Bomer pulls off his obsessive, erratic behavior by emphasizing his kindness more than his broken heart. Butler withholds some crucial details about Sean and Carlos that provide a sudden and stunning explanation for Sean’s behavior. It’s not quite the twist at the end of Us, but the reveal gives the weatherman dimension beyond the simple status of jilted lover. Patiño keeps his face in a classically forlorn expression while Ernesto is with Sean, but he is able to express his character’s conflict over his employment. Good Catholics aren’t supposed to make money off of other people’s grief. This is a transactional relationship that is distasteful and doomed.
Los Angeles is a strange and beautiful city, and, from Griffith Park to the Silver Lake reservoir, Butler photographs it lovingly. It is also a place of subcultures that rarely intersect outside of public spaces. The Latino and gay communities have both done their separate times as magical supporting characters in standard Hollywood movies, so making a film that places gay characters and people of color in the foreground feels important. Even a movie as small as this one can make a difference. Sadly, the movie never quite reaches beyond the poignancy of visual representation. In the end it is a noble effort with an excellent cast that offers catharsis in terms of grief and loss, but can’t quite carry the weight of its issues.