Thursday, April 8, 2010

In Theaters: "La Mission"

The opening sequence of Peter Bratt’s La Mission bursts with music and energy reminiscent of a 70s picture—indeed, the cue he chooses (Curtis Mayfield’s “Kung Fu”) would have been right at home in any number of blaxpoitation flicks. It’s appropriate, because La Mission has a specifically low-budget energy—it’s rough around the edges, and amateurish in places, but it has a genuineness, a heart, and a low-to-the-ground spirit that usually gets bled out of bigger, more polished entities.

Benjamin Bratt (the director’s brother) plays Che Rivera, a reformed “O.G” and recovering alcoholic who has lived for years in San Francisco’s Mission district, driving a bus and raising his son Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez). Jesse’s a straight-A student about to graduate from high school and attend UCLA on scholarship; basically, everything he’s done has been for his father’s approval, which is why he hasn’t told his dad that he’s gay. One morning, Che finds out, and it goes about as badly as Jesse had imagined—he slaps him, berates him, and drags him out on the street, where their public fistfight quickly spreads the word about the conflict within the family.

Some of the writing (Peter Bratt also penned the screenplay) is a little obvious, a little easy—I’m not so sure, for example, that Jesse would have the exact response at his fingertips that he comes up with in the coming-out scene. That moment, and scattered others here and there, feel constructed, rather than organic. But the surprising thing about La Mission is how deep it delves into this particular father-son dynamic, which doesn’t make its way into mainstream cinema all that often, even though it happens constantly in real life. We see not just Che’s anger, but his shame and disgust; more eloquently, the film carefully shows how the two men shut each other out (most films would only show that happening from one side, but not from both).

Most importantly, it gives Che real dimensions; he’s not just a standard-issue bigot, but a man who is really struggling to understand something that’s beyond his limited understanding. “I told your uncle I would try,” he proclaims at one point, as if that’s somehow enough (the intelligent script knows that it’s not). Bratt plays all of those beats well; there’s an edginess, a danger about his work here, something tangible in his coiled rage and homophobia early, and his misguided frustration later on. He’s also allowed some quiet moments; the romantic subplot with neighbor Lena (Erika Alexander, who hasn’t aged a day since her run as “Cousin Pam” on The Cosby Show) has a genuine tenderness, though the picture thankfully doesn’t make the love of a good woman a simple proposition, or a solution to his problems.

Peter Bratt has an easy way with the frame, and the picture’s aesthetics and composition are pleasing without being overly stylized. There are some novice mistakes—the inserts don’t match the intention during the scene where Che discovers the photos, and Bratt doesn’t always seem sure how to get out of a scene, occasionally leaving an actor out to dry with a close-up held too long. But the film has its strengths; there’s a natural, laid-back vibe to the scenes with Che’s domino-and-car buddies (there’s a nice, low comedy to them), and the picture is blessed with a strong, striking sense of place. It knows these neighborhoods well—the Bratts are San Francisco natives—though it might spend a bit too much time on the documentary-style glimpse of low-rider car culture. However, I can certainly understand wanting to play as much of the accompanying song, Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up (Part 1),” as possible.

In fact, the soundtrack is one of the film’s strongest elements; these characters live in the kind of household and neighborhood where music is always on somewhere, where the elder Rivera’s old school R&B blasts in one room and Jesse’s hip hop pounds in the next. Bratt further uses the music to get into his lead character’s head, and there’s something kind of perfect about the way that his first night out with Lena is scored to the Stylistics’ “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart).” That kind of pure romanticism is part of his soul, and that’s what she sees in him—and it’s the part of him that she can’t reconcile with his treatment of his son.

La Mission gets a little boilerplate towards the end (the conflicts and ultimatums are pretty familiar), and director Bratt piles on the symbolism and melodrama pretty deep. But there’s a genuineness and an urgency to the picture that’s undeniable; you see it in the look on Jesse’s face as his eyes dart around for a father who isn’t there, and in the pained expression that Che takes on when he destroys something precious to him. La Mission has some trouble spots, but it’s a moving, affecting film nonetheless, and Benjamin Bratt turns in an open, honest, powerful piece of work.

"La Mission" opens Friday, April 9th in limited release.

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