In 2016 John Butler brought us the brilliant coming-of-age movie Handsome Devil, and now he is back with the exquisite Papi Chulo. Here Butler offers us a two-person play in a city that never sleeps, exploring themes of grief, socio-economic status and culture and friendship. Sean (Matt Bomer) is a TV weatherman for a local news channel in LA who is struggling emotionally to cope with the end of a relationship. Sean’s inner turmoil and emotions have been building for months before exploding live on TV, resulting in him being asked to take gardening leave.
As Sean struggles to adapt to his new home situation, he decides to paint a small area of decking left by removing a symbolic tree. However, Sean can’t manage the job alone and hires a local tradesman, Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño). The trouble is, Ernesto speaks little English. But, slowly but surely, Sean grows close to Ernesto, much to Ernesto’s confusion, in a tender and humorous friendship of convenience. Here Ernesto helps alleviate Sean’s loneliness as both men slowly build their understanding of the other’s life, challenges and needs.
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Papi Chulo is a buddy film at its heart, but its soul is rooted in the road trip genre as it explores one man’s journey through an emotional breakdown. Here Sean finds his own path to recovery through the company of a man culturally and emotionally different to himself in a nuanced discussion on cultural divides, masculinity, friendship, and belonging in a city where life jumps from energetic interaction to isolation in a heartbeat.
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Butler never attempts to force his social messages on the audience; instead, he allows the viewer to unpick the underlying themes. These include but are not limited to grief, mental health, class divide and race. Here, LA’s hot and oppressive urban landscape reflects the heat of Sean’s emotional state in a sublime film that shines with humour, drama, and warmth.