This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.When it comes to novel adaptations, screenwriters and directors (in this case, the same person: Aitch Alberto) always need to do a balancing act between important moments that need to make it to the screen and what gets left behind. This means that, more often than not, certain arcs and themes will be dropped because there is no time to cover everything. In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, however, the decision was to cram in as much as possible without really committing to any of the themes presented.
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Based on a best-selling novel by author Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe centers around two boys with unconventional names who live in El Paso, Texas, in 1987. With wildly different personalities, they end up forming a deep connection through their curiosity about the world around them, their isolation from their peers, and the discovery of their identity.
‘Aristotle and Dante’ Tries to Tackle Too Much at Once
It doesn’t take long to realize that Aristotle and Dante is juggling too much at once, especially after you realize that Ari (Max Pelayo) and Dante’s (Reese Gonzales) personalities alone would be enough to have them trading banter for a whole movie — and maybe that would be a better solution, since in the space of 100 minutes the drama tries to tackle Ari’s relationship with his parents, Dante’s relationship with his parents, the HIV epidemic, homophobia, transphobia, Ari’s possible bisexuality, Ari’s brother’s story, Ari’s extended family, a gap in the boys’ friendship, bullying, Ari’s father’s background… as well as the boys’ curiosity about life, the universe, and everything.
If it sounds like too much, it’s because it is: There is simply no room for Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe to cover all of that, which makes a lot of it come off as superficial at best. At a certain moment in the movie, Ari says “I’m fucked up,” and the statement comes as a shock because from what we’ve seen in the movie, Ari is a pretty normal and decent kid. We never get to fully delve into his conflicts of personality and sexuality. That’s not to say that Ari can’t feel like he’s the worst person in the world, but the movie never conveys those feelings to us.
‘Aristotle and Dante’ Could Take Place in Any Era
The fact that the movie takes place in the late ’80s also should completely change the landscape of society when it comes to people identifying as anything other than heterosexual. However, the movie addresses the HIV pandemic as a footnote, which is frustrating because it would severely help create a layer of fear and dread that was characteristic of the time — and, most importantly, it would build up the kind of internal conflict Ari states he has by the end of the movie and might even help us buy that Ari hates himself as the movie wants us to believe. There’s nothing specific about the movie’s 80s setting — not even the costume design, hair, and make-up lean too much into that decade’s fashion. When you consider that, as sad as it sounds, all parts of the story could take place in the present, it makes it hard to understand why a movie directed at younger audiences would take place in that era.
Aristotle and Dante also commits the grave mistake of repeating the “bury your gays” trope. A certain character is only outed after their death, and it’s a character that, at the very least, could have had meaningful conversations with Ari to hugely elevate the movie. Instead, the character’s sexuality is treated as a kind of plot twist, with their death used as a means to cause some emotion that justifies Ari’s transformation.
The movie also doesn’t seem to want to put in the work to resolve the conflicts it does present. It’s pretty well established that Ari has issues communicating his feelings, and this is even more intense when it comes to his father. However, in a rare moment in which Ari and Jaime (Eugenio Derbez) share a car ride, father and son start having a conversation about their issues around talking. There’s clearly a barrier to be broken, and both acknowledge it. Ari tells his father that they need to talk more, to which his father replies, “We’re talking now, aren’t we?” — and then the scene ends. No conversation, no emotion, no follow-up, nothing.
‘Aristotle and Dante’s Side Characters Are Disposable
With that much on its plate, it’s not surprising at all that Aristotle and Dante wastes a whole slate of potentially good characters: Eva Longoria and Kevin Alejandro fade into the background, while Elena (Luna Blaise) is introduced as the kind of character that will shake up the story only to be forgotten a little while later. It’s also not surprising that Dante’s interest in astronomy is presented almost as an afterthought to justify the title. There’s simply no time for the duo to discover the secrets of the universe, and it’s also pretty hard to do it when the characters hardly ever sit down to talk about art, science, religion, and life.
It’s also a problem for these conversations to take place when one character is offscreen for a good chunk of the movie. Regardless of whether it happens in the novel or not, it’s harder for a viewer to connect with a character when they are simply nowhere to be seen. There’s an attempt to balance this with letters getting read in voice-over narration, but the character to whom the letters are directed barely reacts to them, which makes us not care by extension.
Not Everything Is Lost in ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’
That’s not to say that Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe doesn’t have its qualities. It’s always interesting to notice, for example, how director Aitch Alberto always makes a point of placing Ari and Dante in shots as wide as possible in order to tell us that the world is huge and they’re out to explore it. The very first moment that Dante pops onscreen is also a beautiful one: The boy comes into the story like magic and the contre-plongèe shot makes a perfect parallel of how Ari sees the world before and after Dante starts to inhabit it.
The art direction is also simple but effective, especially when it comes to Ari and Dante’s bedrooms. While Ari’s looks like a hotel room with no personality and no reflection of himself in the environment, which underscores the idea of him not knowing exactly who he is, Dante’s room is bright with big windows, colors, art, and books spread all around, and is basically a mess that invites you in to explore it.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has its heart in the right place, but its title suggests an unforgettable journey that it simply can’t deliver. It also gives too much for Pelayo to do range-wise. That’s a problem, especially when a nuanced performance would be fundamental for a character that bottles up so much of his feelings. It’s pretty easy to fall in love with Ari and Dante, but the movie is only in love with the idea of them, neglecting quality time between the characters that would really make us feel like they’ve traveled through galaxies and beyond.
The Big Picture
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe tries to tackle too many themes, resulting in superficial coverage and a lack of depth.
- The film’s setting in the late ’80s is not fully utilized, missing opportunities to explore the era’s societal issues and character conflicts.
- The movie wastes potential with disposable side characters and fails to resolve conflicts, leaving many storylines undeveloped and unresolved.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is in theaters now.