“This Is Not Berlin” so wants to evoke a time and a place that the backdrop engulfs the characters like a supernova. The setting is the Mexico City area in 1986, when the metropolis, still recovering from the 1985 earthquake, quietly absorbs the shocks of a cultural shift.
Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de León) is a demurely disobedient 17-year-old who pals around with his friend Gera (José Antonio Toledano). Through Gera’s sister, Rita (Ximena Romo), they gain entry to a club called the Aztec Lounge, where an exploding underground scene awaits. “Is this a gay bar?” Gera asks Rita when two men kiss. “This is an everything bar,” she replies.
The movie celebrates the thrill of performance art, the rush of drug trips and the melancholic cacophony of Joy Division. Carlos adapts to the scene, shaving one side of his head and growing closer to Nico (Mauro Sánchez Navarro), who takes him under his wing at the club and has a clear romantic interest.
By day, Carlos’s life has a more leisurely tempo. His mother (Marina de Tavira, from “Roma”) is frequently zonked on medication. His uncle, Esteban (the director, Hari Sama, who drew on his experiences for the film), an engineer who spurned a professional track, dispenses advice.
When Rita remarks on how much Carlos has changed in a month, it feels like it’s been longer. Her warning about who to avoid at the club proves prescient. As much as “This Is Not Berlin” advocates throwing caution to the wind, it is, narratively speaking, ultimately a tad conservative.
This Is Not Berlin
Not rated. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.