Neighborhood drama paints vivid portrait of people, places and prejudices
Directed by Peter Bratt
Cast: Benjamin Bratt, Jeremy Ray Valdez, Erika Alexander
The low-budget indie drama La Mission sure smells like a Hollywood vanity project. It’s produced by and stars Benjamin Bratt. And it’s written and directed by his older bro, Peter Bratt. But don’t let the nepotistic credits fool you.
With only his second film (after 1996’s little-seen Follow Me Home), Bratt the elder proves himself an earnest, frequently insightful camera-slinger. At the same time, Bratt the younger (best known for his smooth crime-fighting work in “Law & Order”) shows he’s got the sand to play tougher, deeper, less pretty boy roles.
Set in San Francisco’s down-market Mission District, the film immediately succeeds in capturing the vivid spark of that historically Hispanic neighborhood. If you’ve spent any time there, you’ll know how accurately La Mission portrays it. And if you’ve never heard of the place, you’ll get a quick sense of its culture. These aren’t just collections of actors and sets; every character and every setting here has a realistic, lived-in feel. There’s a genuine layer of grittiness surrounding this movie—the kind that even the most accomplished Hollywood production designers can’t re-create.
Benjamin Bratt headlines the cast as Che Rivera, an old-school ex-gangbanger. Cruising low and slow through late middle age, he’s now a single father raising a teenage son, working as a city bus driver and using his spare time to build and restore classic lowriders. Our man Che is well-respected in his neighborhood for both his hard-living past and the fact that he’s made something of his life. Che’s pride and joy is his son, Jesse (Santa Fe actor Jeremy Ray Valdez, who’s bounced around serialized television for a decade or so). Jesse’s the prototypical good kid, a clean-living achiever who’s about to graduate high school at the top of his class.
This isn’t just about a father-and-son reconciliation. It’s about a community in flux. It’s about traditions and prejudices breaking down, changing and returning again.
The dynamic between father and son changes, though, when Che accidentally discovers that his son is gay. It’s no wonder Jesse has kept this secret from his father all these years. Dad reacts in a typical macho fashion, beating up his son and throwing him out of the house. Sure, Che’s proud, volatile and carrying around a closetful of skeletons; but fundamentally, he’s a decent guy. It’s just that his culture and upbringing force him to think along certain predetermined lines. Eventually, with the encouragement of friends, family and an interested upstairs neighbor, Che allows his son back into the house under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Father and son are under the same roof again, but it’s clear there’s still no real understanding here.
This could easily veer into corny melodrama—the sort of chest-pounding, shirt-ripping emotion that ends in a teary declaration of, “I love my dead gay son!” But La Mission is a subtle, slow-building drama that doesn’t cut many corners. It starts by getting the details right: the memorial descansos on street corners, the permanent grease under Che’s fingernails, the sweet ’70s funk/soul soundtrack, the undercurrent of Azteca pride. On top of that, it builds a network of characters that aren’t in any particular hurry to deliver the film’s inevitable Big Message. This isn’t just about a father-and-son reconciliation. It’s about a community in flux. It’s about traditions and prejudices breaking down, changing and returning again.
Figuring heavily into the plot is Lena (Erika Alexander, another TV vet who’s done time on every crime show in creation). Lena’s that interested upstairs neighbor. At first she’s just another non-Hispanic hipster helping to gentrify the neighborhood. As the story progresses, though, she slips underneath Che’s tough-guy armor and starts to become a close friend—further proof that change isn’t always a bad thing.
To be sure, there’s some ham-handed symbolism to be found. As a somewhat unpracticed director, Peter Bratt leans on stuff like mirrors to express the duality of characters and convenient rainstorms for men who can’t cry. These are obvious techniques; but they hardly undercut the film. Given the complex performance by Benjamin Bratt, the observant look at Latino culture and community and the important theme of sexuality in traditional ethnic families, La Mission is worth a visit.