Set in San Francisco’s Mission District, the film follows the story of Che Rivera (Benjamin Bratt), a bus driver, lowrider-restorer, and loving father of Jes (Jeremy Ray Valdez), an honour-roll high school student. From the write-up in the MQFF program, this sounded like it might just be the story of this macho guy coming to terms with finding out his son is gay. It was much more than that, and probably my pick of the festival.
There’s a book by Armistead Maupin called Maybe the Moon, and without giving anything away, the epilogue suggests that mainstream media only wants to deal with one issue at a time: disability, race or queerness, you have to pick one and present it in the most normalised setting. To make a story of marginalisation palatable for mainstream audiences, your character has to be the stock-standard hero or heroine with just the one point of difference. La Mission stands against this school of thought. It’s a very layered film, centred around being brown and gay and proud, but also weaving together stories about gender, class, alcoholism, environment, and especially violence, without ever seeming forced.
Che does have a reputation as an O.G. (original gangsta) who is quick to anger and easy to fear, but he also derives respect from his role in the community: as someone who defends his community from the pressures of gentrification, who takes care of his elderly neighbours, who teaches the local youth pride in brown history and culture. His strength is counterbalanced by his tenderness, shown not only in his relationship with his son but also his love for his late mother, his religious devotion, his appreciation of music, and his nervous courtship of his upstairs neighbour — a bike-riding black woman who works at a domestic violence shelter (Erika Alexander). It’s not just the soldier with the snapshot, so to speak.
Once I may have tried to suggest that some traits always read feminine — that fussing in front of a mirror to look sharp, even in a suit, necessarily undercuts masculinity. Nowadays I don’t think that’s the case. For me the artwork on the back of his vintage lowrider characterises this particular portrayal of masculinity:
Like a biker’s tattoo, it’s both totally coherent with masculinity, and also absolutely an expression of tenderness. These nuances of Che’s character give you cause to be invested in his redemption after he beats up Jes, rather than just hoping for a clean break between father and son.
I felt the dialogue and direction was very accomplished, especially in regard to the more peripheral characters who were well-realised even when they had little screen time. The scenes between Che’s friends were a favourite of mine. At one point they are hanging out in the garage, and one mentions that his ex-wife was suing him for child support, and is now saying he can’t see his children without prior arrangement. Another of the gang repeats a catchphrase of Che’s, that “women these days are confused”. A third friend jokes that maybe she’s finally “calling you on your shit”. It’s a piece of believable ribbing between friends, and a little hat-tip to feminism in the one deft gesture.
I think this is how the film escapes feeling laboured despite fitting so much into its 117 minutes — there is always something being said in the background, in scenes where usually people are just talking rhubarb while we watch the protagonist’s emotions play on their face. And even when you see Che walking down the street, passing some people who add colour and texture and perhaps foreshadow something of his future, you suspect their stories may be equally worthy of our interest. But it also doesn’t try to be an ensemble piece (which I think can be where many narratives fail if they can’t commit to it). Che’s struggle is central, not because the other stories are less important but because they’re someone else’s. This is how we live, right?
An obvious criticism of the film would be that the plot is wholly predictable. You know exactly what will happen and the film relies on some boring tropes – a found photo, a car driving into the distance – but the strength of the characters and its message against violence (gang violence, domestic violence, homophobic violence) carries it, and I found it a pleasure to watch. For me it shows that the most moving stories don’t have to be the most generic: perhaps it’s even the specificities that make a story real and resonant.