Going Varsity in Mariachi
(USA, 105 min.)
Dir. Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn
Programme: U.S. Documentary Competition (World Premiere)
For some, mariachi is almost comically stereotypical of Mexican culture, like Germans with dancing polka in lederhosen, Venetian gondoliers belting in a deep tenor, or some beret-wearing French mime squeezing an accordion while smoke billows into the air. Yet beyond the flashy suits and sombreros is a rich history of musical sophistication. Mariachi bridges the old-world of flamenco-inspired chordal voicings and European art-music instrumentation while embracing older folk traditions like son and even indigenous pre-Hispanic rhythms.
Mariachi is the music of celebration and remembrance, of dance, romance, mourning and more. It is also a fundamental aspect of Mexican culture that’s embraced by those who have crossed the invisible lines called borders. There, ties to tradition are fostered in a community along the Rio Grande that very much have feet on both shores.
In one of these small Texan towns is Edinburg North High School, where under the guidance of teacher/coach Abel Acuña, is attempting to guide his students to achieve competitive success. These are the years shaped by COVID, where half of their education has been either remote or deeply affected by the global outbreak. Even here masks must be pulled down when putting a trumpet to one’s embouchure, or surreptitiously slipped when belting out a vocal harmony line.
What sets Going Varsity in Mariachi from the usual high-school competition film, besides its focus on the musical arts instead of the sports that dominate Texan High School culture, is the subtle way that the filmmakers interrogate not simply the manner in which the performances are honed, but the way that this music truly feels transformative and engaging for a community so often othered in American culture. The lyrics are unapologetically Mexican, celebrating that rich culture to the south, while there feels little more American than worrying about getting school scholarships, or finding ways to gamify something as ephemeral as musical performance.
The filmmakers deftly weave in personal stories along the way, from a pair of young friends who come out to one another and are navigating that particular complexity in a region not exactly known for its liberal values. Others are shown to struggle to keep up, while some are acutely focussed on music being their gateway to achieve their dreams outside from their small community. There’s a sense of history with the traditional tunes, but also a yearning to move forward, a perfect combination to illuminate that formative time when graduating from high school and headed on to another direction.
Not everything goes smoothly, and one particularly low moment is made all the more poignant when Acuña overtly calls out the documentary crew, admonishing a poor performance as not good enough and not warranting the ever present cameras. It’s not as if the general arc is particularly surprising, if you’ve ever seen any of these type of films. These moments of self-awareness set it apart, as do instances that capture subtle aspects of the personal lives of the kids and their families that go well beyond any stereotype.
So while the costumes sparkle, the horns blare out, the stringed instruments ring, and the voices shout with well-rehearsed joy, there’s a true charm captured in this film. Yet at the same time, there’s a palpable exhaustion from Acuña. The real struggles for the students aren’t going to be overcome in such short order, and a sense that what’s incredibly important in the moment may have lasting effects but amid the ephemerality of youth.
Going Varsity in Mariachi is in short both entertaining and moving. It’s a well-crafted and intimate look at a particular subculture that’s far more subtle and impactful than the glitzy exterior may appear. Vasquez and Osborn invite us in to this community while providing both a top-level view and a deep intimacy, resulting in a story that’s highly engaging and sure to be an audience favourite wherever it is played.