Popular TV weatherman Sean (Matt Bomer) has an emotional breakdown during a live broadcast and is put on leave by the network. Determined to focus his energy into a project, Sean hires Mexican migrant Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño) to work on the decking outside his house. Ernesto speaks barely a word of English and Sean has a very limited knowledge of Spanish making communication between the two quite tough. Sean quickly begins to rely on Ernesto being around for company, paying him to be his friend rather than just a worker and an unusual friendship between the two blossoms.
John Butler’s Papi Chulo is essentially an exploration of loneliness following the end of a relationship. Sean struggles to move on after his relationship ends suddenly, and there’s plenty to unpack there as the film progresses, and despite the best efforts of those around him to seek help, Sean insists that everything is fine. Even after his very public emotional breakdown, he still refuses to acknowledge that there’s a problem and he’s less than pleased when he gets forced to take leave.
When Sean first picks up Ernesto and hires him, the two are a little wary of each other. Given their language barrier, Sean finds an opportunity to open up to someone even if that someone has no clue what he’s saying. Ernesto is mostly bemused by the experience but he goes along with it sensing that Sean needs someone and as he’s getting paid for it, it may as well be him. For Sean the burgeoning friendship is an escape from his troubles and ironically chatting to Ernesto does for him exactly what all his friends told him when they urged him to seek help and talk to someone.
Butler creates a sweet and genuine friendship between Sean and Ernesto, making it feel real even though it’s very unlikely. On the surface the two have nothing in common and their lives couldn’t be further apart. Sean is a successful and wealthy weatherman while Ernesto works long hours and picks up any jobs he can get to make ends meet for his family. There’s a moment where you suspect that Ernesto could take advantage of Sean’s clear loneliness but he doesn’t.
There are some very funny moments during the course of the film. Alejandro Patiño is pitch perfect as Ernesto, playing the character as often bemused and surprised by the world he is exposed to. At one point he’s taken by Sean to a party, which turns out to be a gathering of Sean’s gay friends. Ernesto hurriedly calls his wife after a man greets him by kissing him on the lips and she implores him to just have a drink and a good time. It’s fun watching Ernesto out of his comfort zone and the way he reacts to these situations is surprising and endearing.
Matt Bomer is always a reliable leading man and it’s nice to see him playing a different kind of character here. As Sean he’s needy and lacks self-awareness. He has no consideration of the imposition he places on Ernesto to satisfy his own loneliness. Most people would realise their behaviour is unreasonable but Sean is so delighted to have company that he doesn’t see it. He also gets friendship confused with the other emotions he’s feeling, leading to a pivotal misunderstanding that threatens to unravel him mid-film.
Papi Chulo is a heart-warming and life-affirming film that really surprised me. It deals with subject matter you don’t often see explored on film and it does so in a way that’s engaging, funny and moving. The performances from Bomer and Patiño are exceptional, making Papi Chulo a film you really should give your time to. I promise you, it’ll surprise you.
Cast: Matt Bomer, Alejandro Patiño, Elena Campbell-Martinez, Wendi McLendon-Covey Director: John Butler Writer: John Butler Certificate: Unrated Duration: 98 mins Released by: Breaking Glass Pictures Release date: 5th November 2019