La Mission bursts with passion on screen and from its filmmakers Peter and Benjamin Bratt, and it’s a terrific portrait of the vibrant, gritty neighborhood in San Francisco. Peter Bratt’s script examines Latino neighborhood pride and the machismo instilled in men that both helps them survive yet hurts their relationships with women, and in this case, a closeted gay son (Tempe native Jeremy Ray Valdez).
Che Rivera, played by Benjamin Bratt in a fierce, take-no-prisoners performance, is a flawed man trying to live a good life with his son, Jes. He’s a recovering alcoholic who was in prison, but in his neighborhood, he’s a strong symbol of honor and compassion. He gets off on the wrong foot with his neighbor Lena (played too cool and stiffly by Erika Alexander) — he thinks she’s another hipster trying to take over the neighborhood and she’s annoyed that he parks his gorgeous vintage low-rider in her way. Their tentative relationship is blown apart when Che discovers that Jes is gay and sleeping with an upper class white boy. Jes is defiant and Che is outraged, his machismo called into question by his son’s “perversion”, and the two have an ugly brawl right out in the street. Che kicks his beloved son out and he goes to live with his uncle. An attempted truce is a disaster, and the scandal puts Jes in the sights of a homophobic schoolmate and wannabe gangster, leading to a terrible hate crime.
La Mission is totally immersive, bringing to life the rich low-rider culture and the harsh realities of living in a world that’s changing faster than people know how to handle. Bratt gives his best performance I’ve ever seen, making Che charismatic, powerful, and warm at times, but dark, conflicted and unmerciful at others. Bratt’s utterly real, drawing from real characters he knew growing up in La Mission. Valdez also fully lives in his role of a proud boy scared of his father but determined to be himself whatever the cost.
Some people have criticized Peter Bratt’s script for lines like “You’re dead to me”, oblivious to the fact that a man like Che would utter such clichés he’s grown up hearing. He isn’t a poet, he’s a bus driver, and Bratt makes you feel every ounce of fury, love, frustration and regret that Che is going through.
La Mission isn’t a perfect film, but it is a perfect character study, and I hope that it opens up dialogues in families where culture, religion and machismo cause GLBT kids to be ostracized. Valdez’s Jes doesn’t say the right things either, baiting his dad instead of asking for his love, and I know that young audiences will see themselves in him.
La Mission couldn’t open in Arizona at a better time. Drunk with the power of their Republican majority and Governorship, the lawmakers have enacted some of the most offensive Anti-Hispanic legislation in memory. Peter and Benjamin Bratt and Jeremy Ray Valdez are in town tonight and tomorrow to support efforts to fix the terrible laws. Their film gives a full-blooded life to a culture that is under attack, while at the same time forcing men in that culture to examine their attitudes and perhaps make much needed changes for the good of their families.
UPDATE: La Mission is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.