• Entertainment
  • movies

How Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe Helped an Author and a Filmmaker Become Themselves

6 minute read

Aitch Alberto and Benjamin Alire Sáenz are video calling from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the West Wing. Earlier on this September morning, they visited the White House with the Hispanic Federation and attended a briefing on policies for the Latino community. They were missing the White House tour to talk to TIME.

This was the first time the two had seen each other in a year, since Sáenz came to see a screening of their movie in L.A. Sáenz wrote the 2012 coming-of-age YA novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (included in TIME’s 100 Best YA Books of All Time list). Alberto wrote and directed the film adaptation, produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Eugenio Derbez (who plays Aristotle’s father), which releases in theaters on Sept. 8.

They met seven years ago, in March 2016, when Alberto cold-emailed Sáenz about how much Ari and Dante had moved and changed her—so much, in fact, that the filmmaker had adapted it into a movie script. Sáenz invited her to his home in El Paso, where Ari and Dante is set, and they quickly bonded. In conversation now, they finish each other’s sentences.

During that trip, Sáenz read an early draft of Alberto’s script out loud back to her. At the end of four days together, Sáenz told her of his two beloved main characters, “These boys were mine, and now I give them to you.”

A tender and frank portrayal of young queer love

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, set in 1987, follows Aristotle Mendoza (Max Pelayo), a surly, 15-year-old loner, as he meets Dante (Reese Gonzales), an inquisitive oddball of the same age who teaches him to swim. The pair, both Mexican American, become best friends—and then maybe, slowly, something more—which Dante, ever-open minded, easily accepts, and Ari wrestles with understanding.

The book was a critical success, racking up honors (the Michael L. Printz Award, the Stonewall Book Award, the Pura Belpré Narrative Medal, the Lambda Literary Award) and garnering praise for its tender and frank portrayal of young queer love. For readers—especially young Latines grappling with their own sexuality—it was an oasis, a world in which they could see themselves that was neither trite nor overwrought. At a NewFest Pride screening of the film in June, the packed Manhattan theater was full of people for whom the book had been a formative life raft.

Alberto first read the book in 2014, all in one sitting. At the time, “I was living a different version of who I was, which wasn't my truest self,” she says. “I had never realized how much this was a mirror, especially Ari's journey, to what I was living through. I was able to walk through my truth and step into a version of myself that felt really authentic.”

The director went through her gender transition while making this film. “For so many years, I lived a very painful reflection of who I was, and I was stepping into the joy of that and that childlike wonder of just starting to live for the first time as how I've always intended and authentically should have been,” she says. “I was living my destiny for the first time through the discovery of the book, which was in turn what made me ready to direct the movie.”

Aitch Alberto behind the scenes, directing 'Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.'Courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment

Deep connections to the characters

It’s hard not to see the parallels between Ari’s story and that of both Alberto and Sáenz. “There was something swimming around inside me that always made me feel bad,” Ari narrates in the book. “I wondered if all boys had that darkness inside them.” Ari’s darkness stems from a closed-off lack of communication—about his older brother Bernardo, who’s been in prison most of his life; about his love for Dante; about all of the feelings running around inside him. Once he begins to understand himself, with the help of his parents, that darkness starts to dissolve.

“I had come out really late in life,” says Sáenz, who is gay. “But when I finally did come to terms and I thought, 'I'm me,' I wrote two books,” Aristotle and Dante and the short story collection Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. “Both books were obviously written by a gay man; that's how I came out. Those books were written only because I came to terms with who I was.”

The director and the author both grew into the truest versions of themselves alongside their art. Alberto thinks she’s more Ari than she is Dante: Dante chooses love consistently throughout the story, whereas Ari starts from a place of fear. Alberto’s experience mirrors Ari’s evolution over the course of the story.

Ari (Max Pelayo) and Dante (Reese Gonzales) eat popsicles as they wait for the bus.Courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment

Sáenz always remembers how painful it was for him to be a boy, growing up in New Mexico, because he never fit in. He hated himself, and he’ll never forget it. Like many young people, it took him a long time to love himself. He’s not alone, he says.

“I always felt like I lived in two worlds. Always,” Sáenz says. “And that was a part of my identity. I'm too Mexican for Americans, not Mexican enough for Mexicans. And I felt, coming out [as] gay, that I'm not gay enough for some people, and I'm too gay for other people. And I always felt like, 'Well, that's where I am: in between.'”

The subtle magic of Aristotle and Dante lives in the fact that it exists in the in-between. Its world is neither fully gay nor straight, Latin nor American, boy nor man. Ari is physically darker, more visibly and culturally Mexican than Dante, while Dante sees himself as a pocho, a “half-assed Mexican.”

“We move from exile to belonging, and sometimes we exile ourselves,” Sáenz says. “And we exile ourselves because other people exile us, and we internalize that. But the book is about belonging.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com