La Mission is a quiet, authentic movie about life in the hardscrabble Mission District of San Francisco. It features a charismatic lead performance by Benjamin Bratt, while writer-director Peter Bratt (the star’s brother) depicts the neighborhood with a keenly observed sense of the close-knit macho culture at its core. Yet for all the verisimilitude ingrained in the spirited portrait of this old-world style milieu, with the front stoop and garage as hubs of activity, there’s not much drama in it.
Bratt plays Che Rivera, a heavily tattooed mechanic with a criminal past. The ex-con loves basketball, Jesus, sleek manly shades and wife beaters. He lives on the first floor of a small walk-up with son Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez) and is intrigued by new neighbor Lena (Erika Alexander), an African-American hippie who seems diametrically opposed to the old-fashioned ideas Che stands for. The gentrification she represents is just a harbinger of a much deeper, personal change for Che, who reacts with all-consuming rage when he discovers pictures of Jesse dancing and making out with his boyfriend.
The narrative centers on Che’s struggle with his deeply ingrained homophobia, the turmoil in the incongruence between the love he feels for his son and the disgust felt for his lifestyle. His pensive courting of the exceedingly tolerant Lena offers promise of opening up, but it presents an ugly contrast to his attempts to submerge the new image of his son beneath the old, to act as if nothing has changed. The inner conflict mirrors the larger shifting notions of masculinity and gender conventions in 21st century immigrant communities. The film earnestly asks that even those stricken deeply, fundamentally by prejudice find a way to awaken seeds of tolerance in their souls.
This ripe subject for a sociological essay works less well as a feature film, as Peter Bratt fails to sprinkle it with the complex shadings and three-dimensional depth it requires. The screenplay follows a predictable formula, with lowrider parties and various forms of male bonding providing the filler between Che’s outbursts at Jesse and his earnest, hesitant attempts at rebuilding their once unshakable bond. The subtext to every conversation about sports, or food, or school is never less than crystal clear, eventually thrust to the surface indignantly by the son, spurring a volcanic response. The peripheral details evoke no more than passing ethnographic interest, no matter how ably the filmmaker spruces them up with soul songs and energetic camera movements.
Benjamin Bratt gives the most memorable performance of his largely underwhelming cinematic career. There’s no vanity in his work — the tough guy image seems wrought from a real, painful place rather than simple posturing — and the actor brings such determined feeling to his every line reading and gesture that he evokes a sense of gradual self-discovery, of Che sorting himself out internally. Still, Bratt is most effective in the wordless scenes that find him alone with his thoughts and feelings. In addition to the cyclical nature of Che’s encounters with his son, the crucial visceral spark that’s a fundamental component to any successful romance is missing from the screen time he shares with Alexander, who is stuck playing a character whose entire existence seems predicated on her saintly presence in the protagonist’s life.
La Mission is evidently a film of great personal significance for the Bratts, who grew up in San Francisco. It’s an affecting tribute to their neighborhood, one that celebrates the close ties that are its lifeblood as it simultaneously criticizes the close-mindedness that defines them. The picture continues the great, timeless tradition of movies that evoke the look, feel and rhythms of life in a particular, small place and imbue it with universal themes. But it gets those themes across early and then hammers them home again and again, as monotony sets in.
The Upside: Benjamin Bratt gives his best performance, imbuing Che Rivera with depth and feeling.
The Downside: Both major storylines come across as repetitive and unconvincing, without memorable moments.
On the Side: The film premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and has finally made it to its theatrical release.