No, “This Is Not Berlin,” it’s Mexico City, in 1986, and rebellious artistic/sexual ferment is boiling over in the nightclubs and in the streets. Hari Sama’s coming-of-age drama strikes a lot of familiar notes while remaining engrossing and compassionate in the details. To quote the title of a Roxy Music song that pops up on the soundtrack, it’s the “Same Old Scene” — yet one we haven’t seen quite this way before.
The movie benefits greatly from the presence of Xabiani Ponce de León as the 17-year-old hero: Lanky and watchful, he’s insecurely handsome between a camouflage of hair. The youthful central figures of Bildungsromans are often passive — it’s the characters around them who make sparks — but Carlos uses his passivity as a stealth weapon of rebellion. In the opening shot, as his schoolmates brawl with a rival gang in the street, Carlos stands calmly amid the fray, unpunching and unpunched.
He’s less interested in futbol than in tinkering with electronics and pining for the sister of his best friend, Gera (José Antonio Toledano). Rita (Ximena Romo) is the sort of firebrand who brings Patti Smith poems to her classics class and shrieks punkified lyrics as the lead singer for her boyfriend’s band.
Carlos gets into the band’s good graces and into their favorite club, the Aztec, after he fixes the boyfriend’s synthesizer, and here is where his unsentimental education truly begins. The Aztec is a hotbed of musical, sexual, and pharmaceutical experimentation, with potential mentors both dangerous (David Montalvo, as a predatory junkie) and interestingly dangerous (Mauro Sanchez Navarro, as Nico, a polyamorous peacock of an artist and scenester).
“This Is Not Berlin” feels very much like the youth of its creator, director/co-writer Sama, rearranged for film: The music, the highs, the lows. (Sama himself plays the hero’s older and wiser uncle, a hipster motorcycle gearhead who dropped out of the rat race years earlier.) The title carries a double sting, as this Central American underground tries to push back against government repression while differentiating itself from European models and coming up with an organically Mexican form of shocking the bourgeoisie.
There are some awfully generic story beats: the betrayal of a best friend left behind as the hero grows up and away, the third-act death of a key figure, a mother (Marina de Tavira) mired in depression. There’s also a refreshingly frank treatment of sex and nudity, given the preferences of Nico’s circle for sleeping around and for naked art-event outrages. Staging an anti-soccer intervention outside a stadium takes cojones.
But the details are fresh and the lead actor holds the screen even as his character withholds himself, defining who he will be in his own time and on his own terms. “This Is Not Berlin” is a relative rarity: a coming-of-age drama in which the student may have more maturity than the teachers.
★ ★ ½
THIS IS NOT BERLIN
Directed by Hari Sama. Written by Sama, Max Zunino, and Rodrigo Ordoñez. Starring Xabiani Ponce de León, José Antonio Toledano, Ximena Romo, Mauro Sanchez Navarro. At Kendall Square. 115 minutes. Unrated (As hard R: Graphic nudity and sexual acts, drug use, some violence). In Spanish, with subtitles.