The Spool / Movies
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is sincere and heartfelt 
Though familiar, Aith Alberto’s adaptation of the acclaimed novel will satisfy fans and newcomers alike.
SimilarAbout a Boy (2002), Ben-Hur (1959) Closely Watched Trains (1966), Contact (1997), Cruel Intentions (1999), Death Sentence (2007), East of Eden (1955), Finding Forrester (2000), Forrest Gump (1994), I've Always Liked You (2016), Jackie Brown (1997) La Haine (1995), Manhattan (1979) Maria Full of Grace (2004), Oliver Twist (2005), Random Harvest (1942), Rebecca (1940) Schindler's List (1993), The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019), The Bridges of Madison County (1995), The Irishman (2019), The Name of the Rose (1986) The Silent Partner (1978), The Tin Drum (1979),
Watch afterDune: Part Two (2024), Napoleon (2023), Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023), Thanksgiving (2023),
MPAA RatingPG-13
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Though familiar, Aith Alberto’s adaptation of the acclaimed novel will satisfy fans and newcomers alike.

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.

In cinema, water is a site of birth, rebirth, and drastic transformations. In movies ranging from Sansho the Bailiff to Moonlight to Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, characters walk into vast bodies of liquid one person and exit another (if, that is, they resurface). It tracks, then, that the romantic drama Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe kicks off its central relationship at a community pool. A conversation between the film’s titular leads, set against the blue, kicks off a life-changing connection.

Before that paradigm-shifting poolside encounter, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (based on Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s 2012 book of the same name) takes its audience through the day-to-day life of Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza (Max Pelayo). An El Paso, Texas teen in 1987, Aristotle keeps everything bottled up inside, including his fear of who he will become. Surrounded by toxic masculinity and haunted by an incarcerated brother his family never talks about, Aristotle is petrified by the possibility that he can only grow into someone who hurts people. He keeps his distance from others at all costs, taking after his similarly aloof dad, Jaime (Eugenio Derbez).

Then Dante Quintana (Reese Gonzales) strolls into the picture, immediately establishing himself as a boisterous counterpart to Aristotle. Their connection is immediate, and for Aristotle, it’s downright vital…but Dante soon moves to Chicago for a year. While apart, both boys come to terms with various parts of their identity, including Dante realizing his sexuality. Even most of a continent away, Dante continually opens Aristotle’s eyes to new ideas of what life can be. The question is whether or not the troubled teen can embrace those exciting and uncertain possibilities.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe Review
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Though Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe isn’t afraid to get dark when it needs to, writer/director Aith Alberto incorporates a gently playful quality into the picture’s visuals of the film that ensures the proceedings don’t get weighed down by queer teenage angst. A bright shade of blue, for instance, continually follows Aristotle within the picture’s production and costume design. Though he tries to display zero exuberance, this recurring hue on bus stops, clothes, and tires functions as a manifestation of the livelier qualities Aristotle has buried inside himself. Meanwhile, shots of popsicle liquid dripping down Dante’s legs or our two leads clutching each other’s shoulders juuuuust a bit too long cheekily reflect their interior desires.

Alberto also, thankfully, adapts Sáenz’s source material with a willingness to eschew cynicism or a potentially grating postmodernist gaze. Aristotle’s voice-over narration, for instance, emphasizes his vulnerabilities, rather than defaulting to self-referential quipping. The sincerity of the proceedings lends real emotional tangibility to Aristotle and Dante’s sentimental moments. It also allows the picture’s more brutal moments to make an appropriate impact.

Those heavier elements are especially apparent in the third act, which, even executed with a heartfelt hand, is the clumsiest part of the story. In a feel-good romantic drama that runs under 100 minutes like this one, there’s just not enough breathing room for an in-depth exploration of the darker aspects of existing as a queer person in 1987 (or any era of American history) and Aristotle’s response to them. One yearns for more time to see these engaging characters respond to the turmoil around them, rather than those moments being comparatively zipped through on the way to a familiar ending.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe isn’t afraid to get dark when it needs to.

It doesn’t help that Alberto and cinematographer Akis Konstantakopoulos are less visually innovative in rendering these moments of hardship on-screen (lots and lots of shaky-cam when the going gets tough) than they are when realizing tender moments of bonding between the two leads. Luckily, Aristotle largely focuses on these quieter matters. Pelayo and Gonzales’ solid chemistry helps here, with the latter particularly embodying an endearingly jubilant spirit in his performance. Gonzales proves so compelling that it’s a no-brainer Aristotle would be fixated on his character.

Even if its dramatic ambitions sometimes exceed its grasp, it’s hard to deny Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’s charms. Its joys include a moving score by composer Isabella Summers and an impressively understated supporting turn from Derbez. You may have seen certain plot points in this feature before, just as you’ve watched other motion pictures that use bodies of water as sources of birth and rebirth. But Alberto hits the key emotional beats so effectively, you won’t care how familiar it is.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe hits theaters September 8th.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe Trailer:

SimilarAbout a Boy (2002), Ben-Hur (1959) Closely Watched Trains (1966), Contact (1997), Cruel Intentions (1999), Death Sentence (2007), East of Eden (1955), Finding Forrester (2000), Forrest Gump (1994), I've Always Liked You (2016), Jackie Brown (1997) La Haine (1995), Manhattan (1979) Maria Full of Grace (2004), Oliver Twist (2005), Random Harvest (1942), Rebecca (1940) Schindler's List (1993), The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019), The Bridges of Madison County (1995), The Irishman (2019), The Name of the Rose (1986) The Silent Partner (1978), The Tin Drum (1979),
Watch afterDune: Part Two (2024), Napoleon (2023), Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023), Thanksgiving (2023),
MPAA RatingPG-13