LITTLE ROCK Clearly a labor of love for the Bratt brothers - Peter writes, directs and produces, while movie star younger brother Benjamin (Miss Congeniality, Traffic) produces and plays the lead role - La Mission is a flawed but occasionally powerful elegy for a neighborhood in transition.
That neighborhood is San Francisco’s Mission District, a predominantly Hispanic, working class quarter that has been undergoing a gradual gentrification process for the past couple of decades. Che Rivera (Benjamin Bratt) haswatched this, and over that period he has evolved from an alcoholic, violent troublemaker to a kind of living monument, a civic patriarch who abides by a code of honor informed by a deep Catholicism. He’s known by most as the bus driver who goes out of his way to do little kindnesses for his neighbors, but he has never let go of his fierce machismo.
And he dotes on his teenage son Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez) - who is understandably reluctant to tell his father he is gay. Despite the famous tolerance for alternative lifestyles, the Mission is still - as Che sees it - a bastion of traditional values. His son’s homosexuality is simply unacceptable, and the rift it causes between father and son does not feel like a screenwriter’s daydream.
It’s a toxic malignancy that corrodes the quality of life for both men. Jesse is exposed to a brutal side of Che, while Che’s life loses all purpose. He isn’t quite up to responding to the romantic advances of a neighbor (Erika Alexander), and he doesn’t feel much like spending time in his garage, custom building low-riders.
Meanwhile, Jesse’s taken in by his more accepting uncle Rene (Jesse Borrego). But while his uncle is kind - and obviously symbolic of what the Bratts feel the Mission should become - the rest of the neighborhood seems tosympathize with Che.
On the plus side, you’ve got decent performances all around, and a superb turn by Bratt, who seems to know the nuances of his character as well as he knows the neighborhood the movie limns. Hiro Narita’s cinematography catches the shabby elegance and slippingdown grace of the Mission, and the filmmakers give us a genuine sense of place; in a way, the film does for the Mission what Kent McKenzie’s The Exiles (1961) did for the Bunker Hill community of American Indians in Los Angeles - it introduces us to a teeming world that otherwise might have been invisible to us.
Yet, parts of La Mission are almost unwatchable. The scenes have a repetitive, formulaic feel and the dialogue is flat and unconvincing. The script might have benefited from another couple of drafts. The rhythm is awkward, and at times it seems like the Bratts are more interested in presenting a positive image of the community than telling us a story about a father and son.
But Bratt’s performance almost redeems the movie. Che is the one character in the film who feels real. Real scary. Real vulnerable. Real human.