There’s a spot on your face.
If Broken Lizard were Central American and deadpan, they might make something akin to Ernesto Villalobos‘ Cascos Indomables [Helmet Heads]. Think an extremely droll Super Troopers meets Office Space starring a sextet of bike messengers desperately trying to break the monotony of their stagnant lives while also staying afloat once their employer closes shop without warning. At the center lies Mancha (Arturo Pardo), a listless sleepwalker of a man allergic to change in any form. Of all these men left unemployed, he’s the sole member lucky enough to be able to use it as an opportunity to follow his girlfriend Clara (Daniela Mora) as she embarks on a new career. But he loves his motorcycle too much. He loves a life at bare minimum and risks losing her too.
So while the rest move on (Charly Mora‘s Chatarra and William Quirós’ Gordo as driving instructors, Harvey Monestel‘s Chito to the bottle, and Gabriel Rojas’ Gato as a chicken delivery man), Mancha struggles for answers. Clara is ready to leave him, his bike is gone, and he can’t help getting mocked wherever he turns about the giant birthmark covering the side of his face. It’s as though bad luck follows him the entire film with one misstep leading to another until even the calm serenity of riding puts him in the hospital. The one chance Mancha has to raise enough money to get back on track and earn Clara’s forgiveness is as a debt collector. Unfortunately, however, that’s the worst job a non-confrontational pushover like him could take.
I’m all for a subdued comedy with quirky characters and an even quirkier plot, but Helmet Heads epitomizes the term acquired taste. This isn’t a raucous adventure to jump into and enjoy despite how it sounds on paper because the humor is played with the utmost severity. We laugh when Gato pretends to be falling into a sugar coma to dupe a security guard that won’t let him park his bike to deliver a package, but it’s not long before he actually does faint. What had felt like a punch line to that lie proves less a gag than character development, though. The boys are genuinely worried about their diabetic friend, remarking how strong his helmet was for not cracking apart. And suddenly you feel uncomfortable for laughing.
That feeling of discomfort doesn’t go away whether it be a sex scene between Mancha and Clara on his bike while surrounded by dozens of dogs or a claustrophobic argument inside Chatarra’s car between he, Mancha, Chito, and Gordo while a scared teen is forced to cautiously drive them around. Rather than earn loud guffaws, Villalobos had me quietly smirking at scenarios due to the sheer absurdity of their construction. It’s inherently funny to have Mancha approach a trucker twice his size before having to chase him on a manual bicycle affixed with an ice cream cooler. But when that joke is delivered between somber moments of defeatist uncertainty, it feels sad instead of silly. We’re watching a bunch of Charlie Browns miss their footballs with a sigh.
The only consistent laugh that’s had is when their former boss Tetas (Janko Navarro) is present for them to pile on with ridicule. He’s the Farva of the group and brings it on himself so our enjoyment at his expense is justified. Besides those few moments, however, the rest left me unsure of how I should respond. Was there going to be a shift in tone a la Office Space when doldrums become circus? Would there be some grand gesture to win Clara back with an insanely dumb yet charming display of affection? Is there going to be any resolution at all? I hate to say it, but that last question is a blanket “No.” If I had to describe this film with one word: anti-climactic.
Characters disappear for long stretches to make it the Mancha show, yet the scope of his trajectory is slight at best. There are no monumental developments to wake us from our general malaise or some epiphany to right his sinking ship. These friends were goofballs who lightly ribbed each other before losing their jobs and they’ll go back to doing exactly that once they’re able to band together again. Are they better as a team than individuals? Maybe. Villalobos’ doesn’t necessarily prove this to be true as much as let there be more success when they are. He’s written a low stakes piece about men who love riding their motorized vehicles. They try a different path when that dream comes to an end and pray for a second chance.
This will surely be enough for some, but a simplistic plot coupled with this deadpan of an aesthetic really made it difficult to hold my attention. If nothing else, though, the endearing performances made me glad to have given it a chance. Pardo does well carrying things (although the birthmark seemed wholly unnecessary comically, thematically, and metaphorically) as the straight man amongst weirdoes. Rojas’ temper juxtaposed with his ailment’s fatigue is an enjoyable contrast, Mora’s exasperated paternal figure brilliantly complements Quirós loquacious naiveté, and Monestel somehow keeps a wide grin while saying “Yes” for half the film and never grows annoying. These are lovable guys you do hope will get a “win.” I only wish there was more conflict for that victory to feel worthwhile.
courtesy of TIFF