Screen Media // 2009 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 10th, 2010
From the thorn emerges the flower.
There are few things as disheartening as seeing a bad film with good intentions. Alas, La Mission falls into that category, as it seeks to tell a very noble story but goes about doing so in an exceedingly trite and conventional manner.
The central figure of the story is Che Rivera (Benjamin Bratt, The Great Raid), a bus driver in the Mission district of San Francisco. Che used to live a pretty hard life, as he struggled with alcoholism and spent a few years in prison during his younger years. Now he's put all that behind him and spends his spare time restoring classic cars with his buddies. Che's son is Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez, Constantine), who's preparing to head off to UCLA to further his education. Jesse and Che haven't had the warmest relationship over the years, but Che has hopes of changing that. All those hopes are shattered when Che discovers that Jesse is gay. After a very loud, very public confrontation, Che tells Jesse that he doesn't want to have anything to do with a gay son.
Soon after the incident, Che begins to regret his words. He still gets sick to his stomach when he even thinks about his son's lifestyle, but he doesn't want to be permanently alienated from his only child. With the help of a kind-hearted neighbor named Lena (Erika Alexander, Déjà vu), Che slowly but surely starts to see his closed-minded views for what they really are. Over the course of the film, Che attempts to form a healthy, understanding relationship with his son.
There's some genuinely moving stuff scattered throughout La Mission, most of which is related to the film's central plotline. The scene in which Che discovers his son's secret is frighteningly convincing, as Che unleashes an unchecked torrent of hatred, frustration and rage. Many are in attendance during this confrontation, and Che's views towards homosexuality are largely representative of the Mission district as a whole. In the days that follow, Che and Jesse are both given a series of suspicious looks from their neighbors. One morning, Lena discovers that someone has spray painted the word "f -- -- t" on the side of Che's house. She grabs a bucket of soapy water and starts to clean it off. Che sees Lena and joins her, never saying a word the entire time. Their actions have different motivations (Lena finds the word hateful, Che finds it a personal embarrassment), but one can sense the winds of change heading Che's way during that dialogue-free moment.
It's too bad there aren't more dialogue-free moments throughout La Mission, as the script too frequently indulges in pedestrian exchanges that seem a bit too recycled ("Your father cares about you very much," Lena tells Jesse. "He can't even look at me," Jesse replies bitterly). However, the larger problem is that the film attempts to do more than it really needs to. There are many scenes devoted to the relationship between Che and Lena, but there isn't enough of substance there to really justify the inclusion of the subplot. Likewise, the scenes which place the spotlight on Che's friends only serve to reinforce negative stereotypes, as the vast majority of the Chicano characters in the film are depicted as sexist jerks. The film wouldn't have been saved by the excision of this stuff (the central story is still too conventional), but it would have been dramatically improved.
If the film is worth seeing, it's due to Benjamin Bratt's impressive performance. Bratt has always seemed like a fundamentally nice guy to me; a trait that seems to be on display initially but which is later contrasted with some nasty edges. It's one of those performances where we quickly lose sight of the actor and begin to focus on the performer. Alas, there's really no one else in the cast who manages to reach Bratt's level of persuasiveness. This is usually the fault of the script rather than the actors, though...everyone seems so thinly drawn.
The film benefits from an excellent DVD transfer, spotlighting the Mission district in appealingly nostalgic hues of orange and brown. Detail is strong throughout, flesh tones are warmly natural and blacks are effectively deep. Audio is strong as well, with a selection of R&B and hip-hop numbers pounding through the speakers rather aggressively without ever forcing the viewer to adjust the volume. The sound design is fairly immersive and dialogue is clear. The only supplement is a brief look at "The Music of La Mission."
The road to uninspired filmmaking is paved with good intentions. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Screen Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R