Vibrant Latino culture, family drama, explode in 'La Mission'
It may be Benjamin Bratt's name above the title, but the Latino community in San Francisco's Mission District is the real star of La Mission. As viewed through the camera eye of writer-director Peter Bratt (the star's older brother), the Mission is an E-Ticket ride of cultural vitality: vibrant, colorful murals sprawl across every wall, Aztec dance troupes and Mariachi bands are out performing on the street at all hours, and a sleek parade of extravagantly restored, airbrushed and detailed lowrider cars prowls the neighborhood seemingly every night, winding up with a fiesta of music and dancing. Every interior is painted in vivid, sun-drenched colors and decorated with altars and family photos.
At times it all seems a bit too perfect and benign (in this alternative SF, it's always sunny, without a trace of wind or fog). But filmmaker Bratt's vision of explosive cultural celebration and pride is meant to offset the typical Hollywood depiction of the Latino American experience within a familiar crime- and gang-infested urban barrio. Violence factors into Bratt's film, but his story is a character study about a man coming to terms with his heritage and himself when fate deals him an unexpected wild card.
Benjamin Bratt plays protagonist Che Rivera with a nice mix of jaunty cool and layered intensity. A Muni bus driver with a torso full of tats who's lived in the Mission all his life, he has a reputation as a tough guy. He doesn't put up with teenage gangsters playing loud rap music on his bus, and he's a recovering alcoholic who's done hard time for the crimes of his youth. But he's well respected in the neighborhood, greeting and bumping fists with everyone as he strolls down the street. A snazzy dresser who dances around his tidy apartment while ironing his clothes, he's also a talented artist who paints saints and folkloric figures on the cruising cars built by his mechanic brother.
Somewhere along the way, Che has also managed to raise teenage son Jes (Jeremy Ray Valdez) on his own. The kid's a straight-A student who isn't into gangs or drugs, plays basketball, and has just been accepted into UCLA. As a graduation present, Che is decorating a classic car for Jes that bears the motto: "The Best Friend I Got." Che is completely devoted to his only son, so it comes as a big shock when he discovers that Jes is gay.
This not only assaults Che's sense of his own masculinity (even though he spends all day hanging out in the garage with his buds—mostly single, divorced, or henpecked—discussing how "confused" modern women are), there are vicious little homies in the 'hood just as eager to assert their own machismo by targeting the "faggots" in their midst. Che's instinctive reaction is so swift and brutal, Jes has to move in with his sympathetic uncle for awhile until his pop cools off.
Unfortunately, once this story arc of rage and rapprochement is established, filmmaker Bratt doesn't now how to grow it; he just keeps hitting "Repeat." Father and son reach a fragile truce and renegotiate their camaraderie until the next time the kid mentions, hello! he's still gay, and Pop goes ballistic again. It's a good thing Benjamin Bratt's onscreen charisma manages to retain viewer empathy with Che most of the time, even though the character is stuck spinning his wheels in the same rage/regret plot rut. We even sort of get it why adversarial new tenant, Lena (Erika Anderson), a young black "hipster" who represents the gentrification of the neighborhood, could be drawn to Che's soulful inner self (their relationship evolves at a thoughtful and credible pace), even though she despises his violent steak.
The devotion of Jes and his Anglo lover, Jordan (Max Rosenak), is nicely done too, although it's a bit disturbing that these 17-year-olds can go out drinking and clubbing all night in the Castro. Still, the Bratt brothers make an honest attempt to explore the roots of fear, rage, and evolution within their culture in a story of one man's struggle to come to grips with himself.
(Benjamin Bratt and filmmaker/UCSC grad Peter Bratt will be on hand for Q&A after the 7 p.m. screening of La Mission on opening night, Friday, April 23, at the Nickelodeon.)
LA MISSION ★★1/2 (out of four)
With Benjamin Bratt, Jeremy Ray Valdez, and Erika Alexander. Written and directed by Peter Bratt. A Screen Media Ventures release. Rated R.117 minutes.
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