Going Varsity in Mariachi Review: An Uplifting Doc That Still Fails to Play a Full Tune
In the opening sequence of “Going Varsity in Mariachi,” a high school mariachi band takes the stage of a dramatically lit an auditorium. Just as the violinist raises her bow, the camera cuts away. We don’t hear what she’s going to play until about an hour and a half later. It’s a frustrating tease that serves as a good example of some of the shortcomings of Sam Osborn and Alejandra Vasquez’s otherwise slick and sweet Sundance documentary.
Osborn and Vasquez’s feature plays like a mashup of Netflix’s “Cheer” and Fox’s “Glee” but set in the Rio Grande Valley, where the primary competitive endeavor is mariachi music. Centering on the underdogs of Edinburg North High School’s Mariachi Oro, “Going Varsity in Mariachi” is a thoroughly enjoyable if formulaic narrative that also fails to closely examine the subculture its proclaims to introduce. That is to say: I wish “Going Varsity in Mariachi” had a little more about, well, mariachi.
As a portrait of a group of kids in a rarely explored region working hard at a particular skill as they plot the next portion of their lives, the film is a success. But audiences will likely leave the feature with lingering questions about the doc’s purported focus: How did a style of Mexican folk music turn into a competitive endeavor? What is the industry around this? It expands on its subjects’ hopes and dreams, but it never fully explains their relationship to this particular music or its deeper cultural significance.
“Going Varsity in Mariachi” runs into a conundrum. It is clearly made with extensive knowledge of competitive mariachi, but it also doesn’t do a great job of explaining it for the outsiders who are (inevitably) the movie’s intended audience. Clearly made with a lot of heart, it’s just not as informative as it could be. You come away from the film with affection for the young musicians, but if you’re a mariachi newbie, you might leave in that same position.
The directors follow the varsity Mariachi Oro squad throughout the 2021 school year as they prepare for various competitions, including, most importantly, the state championship. (It’s always “state,” isn’t it?) Within the group, Osborn and Vasquez hone in on a few select characters. There’s Bella Luna, the overachieving captain who has already completed credits to begin a PhD program in pharmaceutical studies upon graduating. She’s joined by Abby Garcia, another violinist, who wants to pursue mariachi future and leave home for college. There’s also Drake Pacheo, the guitarron player who is new to his instrument and needs an attitude adjustment. The hurdles faced by Marlena Torres and Mariah Guel as a lesbian couple in a conservative community are briefly addressed, and their romance yields a tear-jerking promposal. Leading them all is Abel Acuña, the stern but passionate instructor, who found his own calling in mariachi and wants others to do the same.
Osborn and Vasquez briefly introduce other schools, including Mariachi Nuevo Santander from Roma High School. Nuevo Santander, with their natty red embroidered suits — called trajes de charro — are clearly the stars of this world, and when the teens of Oro see them perform, they are obviously impressed by and jealous of their musicianship and precision.
Still, for the most part we stay with Oro throughout the running time as they overcome setbacks on the road (a brutally awkward showing at one of their competitions) and in the classroom (Drake is spending too much time hanging out with his girlfriend and not enough time practicing his instrument).
Occasionally, Osborn and Vasquez venture into the students’ home lives. There’s no real reason for Abby’s chaotic driving lesson with her dad to be featured, but it’s amusing nonetheless. In these endearing detours you almost can feel that “Going Varsity in Mariachi” wants to be a series rather than a movie. As it stands, it is stretched thin: Neither the economy of the mariachi universe — clearly there’s a lot of money being thrown around — nor the wants of the individual teens gets the attention they deserve. An underdeveloped thread, for instance, is the effect of COVID on the high school experience. Oro is struggling at the beginning of the year, no doubt because they were off-campus for the previous terms.
This is not to say “Going Varsity in Mariachi” isn’t a good time, sure to find distribution and an audience. It’s handsomely shot by Michael Crommett, who highlights the crisp lines of the trajes and the caked-on makeup the women wear. There are nail-biting moments and heart-wrenching ones as well. But I can’t help but come back to Demián Gálvez and Camilo Lara’s bombastic score, which has echoes of mariachi, but is more remix than a direct evocation.
There’s something to be said for subverting expectations, but I wanted to leave hearing and understanding mariachi better than when I first sat down to watch “Going Varsity in Mariachi.” Instead, I got a solid high school story, just dressed up in new clothes.
“Going Varsity in Mariachi” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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