Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½
When a movie, especially a small independent film, appears conventional in its approach to the material at hand, our critical establishment has a tendency to dismiss it. This is too bad, particularly where a movie like La Mission is concerned. Written and directed by Peter Bratt and starring his brother, the better-known Benjamin Bratt, the film is indeed conventional in some ways. It tells the tale of a Latino widower who labors as a San Francisco bus driver (the film is set in the city's Mission district, which has a long and storied Hispanic past) and who is raising a good-looking and popular teenage son.
Rather than dwell on plot development (and spoil one of the movie's initial surprises), let's talk instead about why the conventional is sometimes a smart way to let a film unfurl. This will bring in a wider audience, of course, but also, if the movie is handled well enough, it can allow that audience the opportunity to grow a bit. If you are able, as has been filmmaker Bratt, to write dialog quite well -- sounding off-the-cuff but also specific and often amusing -- and to effectively link one theme (Hispanic machismo) to another (violence against women) to another (homophobia) until everything is not just connected but very nearly inextricable, then you are doing your job very well.
Further, when you are able to create a scene involving the movie's leading "villain" (at least as close as the film comes to having such a character) and then make that scene so powerful that it upends our very notion of "villain" and forces us, as it does its main character, to re-think and re-feel to the point of actual change, this is effective filmmaking. As good as so much of Bratt's dialog is, this climactic scene is done without a word being spoken and is all the better because of it. This is powerful, meaningful stuff, and in no way merely "conventional."
Filmmaker Bratt has also done a fine job of casting his film, beginning with brother Benjamin (Piñero, The Great Raid)-- an actor I've always enjoyed, who is as good here as he has ever been. From his initial scene driving the bus, we know the character is a decent guy. But soon we see him struggling with his macho aspect, where women and gays are concerned. Bratt's struggle -- one step forward, two steps back -- is handled very believably, with the actor using parts of his emotional self that I don't recall his showing us till now.
In addition to the angst on display, we also get an engaging lesson in "lowrider" car culture. And the supporting cast -- from Erika Alexander as Bratt's neighbor and possible love interest to Jeremy Ray Valdez as his son "Jes" -- is first-rate. If the symbolism gets a little heavy at times, the emotional power the film wields never slackens.
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