Cinema has always played a major role in bringing literature to “life” – giving faces and voices to iconic characters created on the page. Although the last few years have proven that just about anything can and will be adapted into a movie, not every project brings the authenticity that fans look for in adapted works. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is one of those books I treasured in high school. I secretly read a library edition to hide my interest in queer things, and while I never read the book’s sequel I remember being so happy that books were being made for gay teens. The adapted film carries a lot of the charm and nostalgia of the book while simultaneously grounding itself in its 1980s Texan setting.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Director: Aitch Alberto
Release Date: September 8, 2023
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe follows Ari, a quiet (yet cool) Mexican-American teenager living in El Paso with his mother and father. He meets Dante on one fated summer day at their local pool, and Dante teaches Ari how to swim. The two initially bond over their unique names, which reference the famous poet and the famous philosopher. While Ari typically keeps to himself, he’s instantly drawn into Dante’s world of art and nature and the two become fast friends. Their summer comes to an abrupt end when Ari pushes Dante out of the way of a moving vehicle and breaks his leg. Dante goes to Chicago for the next year with his dad, leaving Ari alone in El Paso.
The two communicate via letters for the next year. Dante returns at the beginning of the next summer and the two continue on as normal, though Dante’s revelation of his sexuality creates friction between them. An ill-thought-out kiss between Ari and Dante strains the friendship to the max, as Ari struggles to reconcile his sexuality with his masculinity and family.
Dante, now free to experiment, is caught making out with another boy from their town. After they’re caught Dante is brutally beaten by a group of young men and left hospitalized. Ari’s anger finally boils over and he tracks down one of the attackers, ensuring that Dante is left alone. When he returns home he is confronted by his worried parents who comfort him and let him know that they love him regardless of who he loves. Finally, Ari and Dante reconcile their past arguments and realize what they mean to one another. For a queer story set in the 80s, it ends rather optimistically!
I read the book years ago, so my memory of its exact story isn’t perfect. What stuck with me were certain characterizations and scenes: the first pool meeting and later the second kiss between Ari (Max Pelayo) and Dante (Reese Gonzales). The film captured the atmosphere and characters beautifully. Dante is loud and unafraid of being himself and Ari is reserved and isolated from his family and peers. The two make an unlikely set of friends, but Pelayo and Gonzales bring life to them and give great performances. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has quite a cast, including Eva Longoria and Eugenio Derbez as some of the supporting roles.
My favorite thing about Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is how it allows Ari and Dante to work through the pains and awkwardness of growing up queer in Texas in the 1980s. The film is grounded in the specific moment of its setting, and it understands that realizing one’s queerness is not always easy or happy.
The internal struggles of the two main characters, but especially Ari, is reflected in the world around them: the TV shows news about the AIDS crisis; family members talk down on the aunt who lived with a woman roommate for years; Ari’s older brother is in jail for murdering a trans woman. But Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe shows maturity in handling these themes and by allowing Ari to eventually verbalize and understand what being gay means for him. Ari learns how to open himself up to the people who love him, even if it’s uncomfortable in the moment.
I loved what Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe does for its characters, however, some of the dialogue was a little on the nose and I thought the ending scene was a bit too cheesy. Ultimately, this is a movie for teenagers, so a little cheese is totally fine! But I can’t lie, the final scene’s animated element threw me off. The film also drags on a little in the middle portion when the two leads are separated. While the letters function to move the plot along, the film is strongest at the beginning and end of its runtime. Ari carries these scenes in his subtle way, but I couldn’t help longing for the two to be reunited on screen.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a decent adaptation of a popular gay YA novel, pushed forward by the strength of its cast and the gorgeous tone and look of the film. Regardless of its faults, it effectively serves the original story. I can’t wait to see what the two leads Pelayo and Gonzales do next!