Review: La Mission

Benjamin Bratt stars in an intimate character study masquerading as a Latino family drama.

Benjamin Bratt in LA MISSION.

La Mission, which screened at the USA Film Festival on Wednesday night before opening in select area theaters today, is the type of subtle and nuanced piece that falls short of greatness but still provides worthwhile viewing. Much of the credit goes to Peter Bratt, the star’s brother, who wrote, directed and co-produced with Benjamin. The narrative unfolds at a relaxed pace, and director Bratt allows individual scenes to breathe deeply without rushing into the emotions.

That can be frustrating at times, especially when a musical montage, pretty as it is, threatens to derail the film entirely, or when the story traffics in melodrama, or, on occasion, wallows in sentimentality. More often, however, director Bratt shows rather than tells, displaying respect for the intelligence of the viewer.

True, certain points are telegraphed. It doesn’t take a film critic, for example, to discern that sparks will fly between an attractive single man and an attractive single woman living in the same apartment building. But even there, the characters hold true to their own individual integrity, rather than sacrifice believability for the sake of plot mechanics.

Benjamin Bratt plays Che Rivera, a San Francisco bus driver tough enough to stare down two hood rats  who threaten to cause a commotion. He lives proudly in the Mission District, flirts with the ladies, chats with the shopkeepers, and carries on with his close friends in the apartment’s basement garage. As a single parent, he has a close, loving relationship with his teenage son Jes (Jeremy Ray Veldez), who plans to attend UCLA in the fall.

Worried that Jes wants to move away to get away from him, Che confides in his brother Rene (Jesse Borrega, barely recognizable from his run on TV’s Fame years ago). Rene reassures him that they would have done the same thing as Jes, if only they had had their heads on straight and hadn’t gotten involved in criminal activity that landed Che in prison.

Che has walked the straight and narrow ever since, apparently, but his reformation is put to the test when he discovers that his beloved hijo is gay. Che, who has projected an uber-macho aura from the moment he’s first seen on screen, reacts in an angry, utterly predictable manner.

Up to that point, the film has played like a family drama, and I expected the revelation of Jes’ homosexuality to be considered and weighed from all constituents. That’s what happens, initially. Jes’ schoolmates and people in the neighborhood stare at him, the accepted insider turned into the scorned outsider.

And then the focus narrows to Che.

Most of the people who really matter to Jes, his closest family members and his best friend, seem to have no trouble accepting the news that he’s gay. All except his father, who looks at the matter entirely through his own eyes, and cannot possibly understand or accept Jes.

That particular arc — the hostile parent — is a very familiar in ‘coming out’ movies, but La Mission is not a ‘coming out’ movie, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, the suggestion is made clear that it’s Che who is locked in a closet and refuses to come out, a closet he has built with his close-mindedness and refusal to deal with his own, hidden issues.

Erika Alexander, looking distractingly good, provides fine support as Lena, a strong-minded, strong-willed new neighbor in the apartment building.

I’ve never thought of Benjamin Bratt as anything more than a pretty boy actor, but that’s obviously unfair on my part, since he turns in a very good performance as Che. It’s an actor’s dream, since the entire movie is built around his character, and he gets to play nearly every emotion, but it’s bereft of excessively showy dramatics. Che is capable of florid expression, yet in Bratt’s performance we get the sense that Che is not quite all that he’s cracked up to be.

To be sure, La Mission has its faults, but its soulful soundtrack isn’t one of them. The movie is a rewarding experience.

La Mission opens today at Landmark Magnolia, Angelika Plano, Cinemark 17, AMC The Grand 24, AMC Mesquite 30, AMC Irving Mall Cinemas 14, and AMC The Parks at Arlington 18. More information is available at the film’s official website.

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