Jesse goes to high school in the Mission district of San Francisco. His father, Che, an ex-con and ex-banger, works on low-riders and drives a city bus.
Jesse is also gay but in the closet and has a young white boyfriend from a much “nicer” neighborhood.
You can imagine how it plays out – Dad isn’t too happy when he discovers sexy Polaroids showing his son shirtless and kissing on another man. His adverse reaction is not surprising.
What did surprise me was the film’s frank depiction of the father’s violent reaction to discovering his son, his only son, was gay, and that part of the problem for Che, if not the biggest part, is that Jesse’s boyfriend is white: “Now tell me, who’s this fuckin’ white boy?” Che asks, challenging Jes to tell him he’s gay. “He’s a friend,” Jes says. “Is that why he’s manhandling you like you’re some kind of Mexican bitch?” Che comes back.
“Stay brown,” is a common phrase Che uses in every day life.
There’s also no easy rapprochement between father and son. Che spends most of the film not moving from his position of, “Don’t Ask, don’t tell.” I appreciated that depiction. There’s more to learn from that than a fast reconciliation.
After the initial confrontation which results in Jesse’s having a bloody lip and getting thrown out of his dad’s house, the film focuses more and mostly on the character of Che, played by Benjamin Bratt, whose history of violence and tendency to meet life’s struggles with violence or threats of it, eventually causes him to lose his son and a possible love interest, Lena, played by Erika Alexander whose character is a bit of a hipster and a “new-money type,” as Che calls her during a argument, and therefore a newcomer to The Mission. Her performance takes her character back and forth from luminous and open to steely and strong. She frequently serves as the moral center of the film, and as a kind of final judge for Che.
The setup of the film worked well for me. It dropped me into a richly detailed milieu and among vibrant and attractive characters that spoke their own language, maintained their own traditions, cultural practices and allegiances.
Bratt embodies the handsome and complex Che Rivera with effortless charm and realness. There’s not a false moment in his performance. It was easy for me to believe both his love for and dedication to his son, and the revulsion at his homosexuality. The reason for that believability is not just Bratt’s chops, which are considerable, and his commitment to the character but also a script that provides ample cultural and personal details for Bratt to play with and against.
Unfortunately for the character Jesse, played by the talented and cute-as-hell Jeremy Ray Valdez, the gay aspect of his character doesn’t really ring true. Not because it’s difficult to imagine a young gay and masculine Latino living in the Mission and struggling with his sexuality or because Valdez can’t “play gay” but because it feels like his orientation is primarily a catalyst for provoking change in the central character, Che.
Why else make Jesse’s boyfriend white? Wouldn’t it be more credible to write him as involved with someone in the neighborhood or at least another Latino? Further, no details of the young boys’ relationship are supplied. Where did they meet? What do they have in common? I never found out. I can’t even remember the boyfriend’s name. I do remember a painfully stereotyped shot of the studiously messy-haired boyfriend clasping his hands in delight as Jes gets his diploma. It’s clear his whiteness and his queeniness exist solely as points of contrast and contention with life and love in La Mission, and not as aspects of a real character.
Valdez holds his own against Bratt in a handful of tense and emotional scenes, and that’s no easy feat (this is his feature-film debut and it’s an impressive one), but it’s too bad he didn’t have a chance to play a more fully-written character, one whose sexuality was written as well and rang as true as his cultural heritage.
Still, La Mission’s fresh milieu and the characters’ lovely and soulful performances, extending to the supporting cast, particularly Jesse Borrego as Rene, make it inspiring and engaging viewing. I watched it twice and felt the same way both times. Plus, the low-riders are wonderful and the soundtrack full of color.
La Mission was written and directed by Bratt’s brother, Peter.
In an interview with some gay rag about the film, young Valdez says he was inspired to take up acting by Benjamin Bratt’s performance in Piñero. Bratt’s performance is impressive in that film and I also highly recommend Short Eyes, an unusual and ambitious film based on the play of the same name written by Miguel Piñero. Piñero was polymorphously perverse, to say the least, and Bratt plays him fearlessly.