“La Mission”

Growing up in the Mission district of San Francisco, Che Rivera (Benjamin Bratt) has always had to be tough to survive. He’s a powerful man respected throughout the Mission barrio for his masculinity and his strength, as well as for his hobby building beautiful lowrider cars. A reformed inmate and recovering alcoholic, Che has worked hard to redeem his life and do right by his pride and joy: his only son, Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez), whom he has raised on his own after the death of his wife. Che’s path to redemption is tested, however, when he discovers Jesse is gay. To survive his neighborhood, Che has always lived with his fists. To survive as a complete man, he’ll have to embrace a side of himself he’s never shown.

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“La Mission” is one of the most powerful and rewarding films I’ve seen in years. It is a great story, told very well by very talented people who had something important to say.

Every actor is perfectly cast and directed. Benjamin Bratt gives his heart in his performance as Che Riveria: he is given solid dialogue, but in the scene where he has no words, his body and soul communicate all that needs to be said and more, and he is very good at showing how his character can go from a gentle soul to a dangerous man.

A reformed inmate, a recovering alcoholic, and since his wife’s death the single father of teenager Jesse, Che has a day job as a bus driver, and he is busy doing good deeds for his neighbours, upholding the code of honor he learned growing up and custom-building lowriders to drive every Friday nights through the streets of San Francisco’s Mission district along with his friends, the “Mission Boyz”.

Che is well-respected in his neighborhood for both his hard-living past and the fact that he’s made something of his life. There is no one in the world that Che loves more than his son Jesse, a good kid and a clean-living achiever who’s about to graduate from high school at the top of his class and is bound for UCLA, but both father and son are about to discover that love isn’t always unconditional.

When Che – whose entire existence is defined by his macho reputation – accidentally discovers Jesse is gay and has a boyfriend, Jordan, he is upset and reacts the only way he knows – violently. A fight on the street ensues and the secret becomes public knowledge. Che is too old-school to accept his son’s sexuality and Jesse is his father’s younger version: he is a conflicted determined young man who is not willing to compromise his beliefs, much like his father clings to his traditional values, so the rift seems irreparable. The painful scene when Che confronts Jesse is painful, and the rest of the movie revolves around the consequences of Jesse’s secret being out and Che’s struggle to figure out what he should do despite the deep betrayal he feels from his son.

Not everyone in the community is intolerant: Che’s brother Rene and his wife Ana are surprised but accepting – their only son was born with a cardiac defect and that has made them more sensitive to the differences in children – and when Che throws him out of his home they take Jesse in until things cool down.

But others in the neighbourhood are not as open-minded, and bullies hassle the Riveras and Jesse is eventually shot by a homophobic young Mission thug.

Along the way, Che develops a complicated relationship with his new neighbor Lena – a woman with a history of abuse who is devoting her life to working in a women’s shelter. Lena sees through Che’s violent, macho exterior. Experience has taught her that he is the kind of man who can’t change, but she can’t help but be moved by the wounded boy inside. She tries to help father and son mend fences and force Che to face his own demons and begin to understand his son more fully.

Che is proud, volatile and carrying around a closetful of skeletons, but he is fundamentally a decent guy. It is just that his culture and upbringing force him to think along certain predetermined lines.The distraught father abandons everything that means anything to him, and returns to the bottle. A near tragedy reveals what Che has to lose by his stubborn rejection and violent temper. The burden is on Che to repair his relationship with his son.

Finally, the film provides a good insight into Latino culture and San Francisco is a wonderful backdrop to the story, but I don’t think you need to be a Latino or from San Francisco and have a gay member in your family to relate to the characters and understand how hard it is to tell someone you love something about yourself that you know will be disapproved of and how hard it is to discover that someone you love is different from what you hoped/expected and accept that difference.

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