Gay people die. That was cinema’s overriding message for decades when it came to any kind of queer experience on screen. And then something wonderful happened. Shows like Heartstopper, Love Victor, Young Royals, and High School Musical: The Series—not to mention the Red, White & Royal Blue movie—came along to show us what we’ve known forever; that LGBTQ+ people don’t have to suffer and die to be interesting on screen. And more than that, queer people of all ages are worthy of sweet, wholesome love too.
It’s within this golden age of queer YA content that Aitch Alberto’s adaptation of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe arrives on screen. But crucially, this isn’t just another cute, adorable tale of two boys in love. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with that, but as fans of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s book already know, Ari and Dante’s tale isn’t quite as idealistic as those other aforementioned titles. There’s joy, yes, but by setting the story in 80s El Paso, Texas, Aristotle and Dante refuses to shy away from the realities of life as a queer Mexican-American in that specific time and place.
Things do start off rather hopefully, though, and that’s vital, because if you don’t believe in the connection that instantly forms between Ari and Dante, you’ll have no interest in discovering their relationship as they go on to discover the secrets of the universe together.
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Aristotle “Ari” Mendoza usually keeps to himself, preferring his own company, and it’s on one of many solo summer days in an endless summer that he meets Dante Quintana, a sweet, bubbly, and occasionally precocious boy who dreams big and dreams loud.
A haze of rippling sunlight envelops Dante in that moment by the pool, and then something suddenly clicks as these two lonely teenagers who couldn’t seem more different go on to spend an entire summer together. It’s not love at first sight, not exactly, but the pair soon become inseparable nonetheless.
This bond is so integral to the film that Ari and Dante’s separation during a long stretch in the middle threatens to derail the momentum that writer-director Aitch Alberto has so carefully built up to this point. It’s a bold choice, narratively speaking, to start with them together only to then tighten the focus onto them separately as individuals, but letters from Dante bind the pair together still, even though Ari doesn’t know how to reply to these increasingly personal confessions. That’s not because he doesn’t care though. Rather, he worries that he might care too much about this strange pixie-dream boy who left his life as suddenly and intensely as he entered it.
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It’s in this middle section that the pair explore life beyond their friendship with some big revelations and chance romantic encounters with other people that help clarify their own desires separate from one another.
It’s a credit to stars Max Pelayo and Reese Gonzales that Aristotle and Dante’s connection still resonates even with all those miles between them. In the hands of someone else, Dante’s questions about masturbation and his outward pondering on the nature of their relationship could have come across as awkward or even silly, but Gonzales nails the part. And so does Pelayo who manages to balance his character’s tough, stoic exterior with the turmoil that lies within. Alberto had a tough job casting for two characters who fans already have an exact image of in their heads, but honestly, they couldn’t have been more perfectly chosen.
Everything the boys do together is filtered through gorgeous cinematography from Akis Konstantakopoulos who makes stunning use of expansive Texan skies and a majestic desert backdrop that reflects the breadth of the universe that opens up to Ari and Dante when they meet. No effort is made to fetishize this 80s setting, either. Subtle production design and costume work ensure that the film is grounded very clearly in a specific time and place without distracting from the story at hand.
If you haven’t read the book yet — and if not, why not? — then you’re probably catching onto the fact this isn’t exactly your regular gay coming-of-age story. Sure, Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy,” an obligatory staple of queer cinema, pops up here too, but there are no easy answers when it comes to the film’s central romance, if you can even call it that.
Ari and Dante’s relationship is clearly born of love, yet that love remains ambiguous in Reagan-era Texas, a time when queer role models simply didn’t exist for teenagers whose fondness for one another could very well turn out to be more than just friendship.
That’s a tricky tone to navigate, especially when all the extra context from the source material has to be condensed in order to fit a small movie runtime. Yet Aitch Alberto’s writing succeeds far more often than it fails. Several key moments from the book are replicated perfectly here in ways that seem destined to resonate with a whole new generation of viewers who never got to discover these scenes firsthand in the original text.
From that first encounter by the pool and an unforgettable dance in the rain to a parental scene that rivals even Love, Simon and Call Me By Your Name for how much it’ll make you cry, Aristotle and Dante is a gorgeous, affecting adaptation that lives up to the hype and then some. If you can overlook some minor faults, Secrets of the Universe is an instant YA classic, regardless of whether you know the book or not. And honestly, who even cares about those small hiccups, because the film’s target audience certainly won’t.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is the kind of film that teenagers will memorize chunks of dialogue from because it speaks to them through the course of exploring their own queer awakening. And crucially, this isn’t just another white story either. The boys’ Mexican identity is integral to their journey too, whether Ari’s negotiating machismo cultural norms or Dante’s questioning how “Mexican” he really is.
Later twists push Air and Dante even further out of the usual comfort zone gay coming-of-age stories have recently become more known for, but even in the darkness, there’s still hope, and most crucially of all, joy. So prepare to fall in love with Ari and Dante just as you fell in love with Simon and Victor and Nick and Charlie and all the other queer kids who stole your hearts on screen these past few years. Because even with this new wave upon us, you can never have too many stories about young LGBTQ+ people in love, no matter what form that love might take.♦
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