After three years in prison on a drug conviction, Enrique (Esai Morales) is coming home to the Bronx and to his family. It wasn’t his first time in the joint, but he intends for it to be his last. He returns home to his wife Angela (Judy Reyes) who seems emotionally distant and his son Michael (Harmony Santana) who’s also changed quite a bit in the past few years. It’s not quite the homecoming Enrique expected, and he immediately tries to take control of the situation in the only way he knows how… by demanding it. But with the added stress of a parole officer (Isiah Whitlock Jr) just waiting for him to screw up, his every move could be the one that sends him back to jail.
His wife’s secret affair eats at his manhood, and his new boss at a low-wage kitchen job treats him with disrespect and disdain, but it’s his son’s refusal to meet his masculine ideals and expectations that challenges Enrique the most. Michael’s lost interest in sports, hangs around with a less than manly crowd, and seems to be hiding a double life.
A double life as a teenage girl named Vanessa. Michael is a transsexual in the preliminary stages of moving from a male to a female, and he meets regularly with an older woman who’s been down that path and provides him with medication, encouragement, and incredibly uncomfortable-looking injections to plump up his ass cheeks. Enrique is not programmed to understand what his son is going through,and for a man whose last act in prison was to stab a homosexual while calling him a “faggot” this new world presents him with the ultimate challenge. Can he change from the man he is to the man he needs to be?
Gun Hill Road tells an important and unfortunate story that also happens to feel more than a little familiar. It’s a coming out tale where Michael is forced to deal with verbal abuse at school, a new relationship that seems more about sexual experimentation than love, and most centrally a parent who simply can’t accept the change. But while Enrique, Angela, and many of the others fit into simple and expected boxes it’s Michael/Vanessa who breaks free in a big way.
For all the cliches on hand here, and there are quite a few, Santana gives a mesmerizing performance as a character that should feel new to most viewers. Many films have dealt with gay issues, but very few have narrowed the focus into the transsexual experience. (In fact, Felicity Huffman’s Transamerica is the only example that comes to mind.) Santana knows that experience intimately as she was in fact once a male herself. She’s fearless here and allows an almost invasive look into a life filled with fresh difficulties. One sequence, shown almost in real time, follows Michael’s outward transition into Vanessa complete with undergarments, specialized accessories, and more.
But it’s the transformation Santana shows on her face that has the most effect. The bored and restricted Michael becomes the hopeful, nervous and free spirited Vanessa who spouts poetry on stage, catches the eyes of those around her, and bleeds emotion when confronted with the unknown. The film is very frank sexually, and Santana portrays the pain and confusion inherent in those situations with a raw power.
Gun Hill Road is a film about discovering that who you are and who you want to be aren’t always the same and then challenging yourself to change that truth. Enrique struggles in his role of father and husband but also as a bad man who can’t stop being bad. Michael’s struggle goes even deeper as he’s trying to find who he is behind biological walls. The story’s many cliches make this a road most taken, but the character and talent on display from Santana makes it a film worth seeing.
The Upside: Harmony Santana gives a standout performance; Michael/Vanessa is explored with more attention and care than transsexual characters are usually allowed
The Downside: Parental roles feel cliched and follow the expected arcs; film slows to an uninteresting crawl when Harmony is off-screen; as interesting as Harmony’s character is there’s little growth
Gun Hill Road is currently playing in limited theatrical release. (Here in the Bay Area it can be seen at the SF Sundance Kabuki.)