reading and writing the poetry and stories of our people and places

Monday, April 19, 2010

Irene Nexica's Review of LA MISSION

I couldn't stand to think someone might miss this if you didn't catch the link on the side so here it is in all its beauty:

Local director Peter Bratt’s second film La Mission is an allegorical cruise through San Francisco’s Mission District that features complex issues and characters. An ode to the healing power of history and community, the film wears its humanistic heart on its sleeve without being cloying or disengaging. It’s likely to please Bay Area film fans on several different levels.

The film has many ambitions – to talk about how Latino family and community can adapt to acknowledging queer members, analyzing the destruction caused by rigid masculinity, and proposing avenues for healing.

Lowrider culture forms an extended metaphor for audience and character journeys. It’s clear a lot of love went into this production, and it largely works, with depth of intention sometimes smoothing over rough elements in the storytelling.

A strength of the film is that it addresses complex issues without alienating, and asks tough questions without finger pointing. The acting helps move the story forward, creating sympathetic and human characters.

The core of the film is Che (Benjamin Bratt), a tightly wound man whose love for family, community and cars is tempered by the respect he commands through fear. Bratt aptly conveys Che’s volatility and keeps him from veering into stock gangster status.

Che’s son Jess (Jeremy Ray Valdez) is in the process of transitioning to a different world – he will soon leave for college. He’s innately aware that being gay is not a subject to bring up with his dad and friends, and that secret further increases the unspoken distance between him and folks who love but don’t fully see or know him. Valdez’ rendering feels natural, and at the same time his motivations can appear hazy.

Che’s neighbor Lena (Erika Alexander) also has a secret, and her character could be drawn in more detail. She’s the narrative’s moral compass, but her life and thoughts are mostly inferred. She has a charisma that’s likeable and you may find yourself wanting to know more about her perspectives and history.

The dynamics of these overlapping worlds; the Mission changing as hipsters move in, Che’s concern that a white lover means Jesse’s become a “Mexican bitch,” all point to the need for a delicate balance of storytelling in showing the connection between inner and outer worlds and the political context of life in San Francisco and the United States.

To the extent that the film remains true to its focus on people these plot elements work. As it veers into the allegorical, it can drift. At times the story is not dense enough and the pacing feels slow.

Cinematography by Hiro Narita is lyrical, beautiful, and symbolic in its own right, with window reflections, mirrors and faces viewed through a split lens conveying the character’s split lives. If you are already in love with the colors and homegrown sights of SF and the Mission, you’ll feel sated by the images, and for those who’ve never been, it’s likely to generate more than a few visits.

At a recent screening, Peter Bratt described his process of writing the screenplay as one where the themes of the film came first, and then he sculpted the characters around the narrative. This idea-driven plotting style can be a difficult one to resolve with the need for characters that move beyond the archetypal.

The characters sometimes feel remote as a consequence of the burden of carrying the plot, while at other times they are intimately familiar – they could be your friend or cousin. While precise acting helps add depth to characters, sometimes the people seem to be outpacing the script, and the messaging can be heavy handed.

These bumps along the way are easily forgiven, as the film’s heart is resoundingly in the right place. Audiences will likely carry insights away as there’s enough substance in play for everyone to find both points of connection and details to ponder.

Audience support for community-oriented independent films like this create more opportunities for stories to be hammered out by Bratt and other kindred filmmakers.

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