Culture Clash: Benjamin and Peter Bratt Shine A Light On ‘La Mission’
The SF-bred Benjamin and Peter Bratt’s affection and affinity for the Mission District comes through with crystalline clarity in La Mission. The brotherly team, with Peter writing, directing and producing and Benjamin starring, have much of the vibe down: the way the sun bounces off the concrete; the wildly imaginative and brightly hued murals winding off 24th Street; the bodegas, produce shops and mom-and-pop businesses lining the streets; the kids in black hoodies who slouch on out on front stoops; and some of the district’s funky diversity -- one that encompasses blue-collar Latino families, college-age hipsters, the bikers, and spiritual searches. You feel get a bit of a thrill just seeing those familiar sights -- Balmy Alley, Muni buses, Folsom Street basketball courts.
In the middle of it all is Benjamin Bratt’s hard-eyed yet soulful Che Rivera. He’s the kind of character that leaves a deep impression -- deeper than the many tattoos ornamenting his body. He’s a former gang-banger attempting to go straight, a widower, a recovering alcoholic and a Muni bus driver by day, Che’s devoted to building gorgeously appointed lowrider autos by night -- and caring for his only son, Jess (Jeremy Ray Valdez). The high schooler is an ace student, hiding a major secret: he’s gay and afraid to come out to his extremely macho father.
But it’s hard to hide from a veteran driver accustomed to taking control, keeping his guard up and looking for anything amiss: Jess is outed via some random party snapshots at a Castro club, and Che explodes into homophobic, violent rage, until lowriding buddies step between the two. This may be San Francisco, a mecca for so many gay men, but Che’s Mission is an altogether different universe, one where unenlightened gang-bangers with guns continue to shut down dialogue with disturbing finality (in fact, the production of La Mission was touched by violence when two actors were attacked for allegedly being gang-affiliated). The father and son circle each other tentatively -- the hurt-eyed Jess looking for any sign of acceptance and Che blinded by fury at any sign of his son’s sexuality -- while good-hearted, bike-riding neighbor Lena (Erika Alexander) finds herself drawn into the slowly simmering conflict.
Much like its charismatic, forbidding protagonist, La Mission is initially tough to swallow. Those who aren’t already fans of the SF neighborhood may not want to stick around much longer than necessary, getting to know the Bratts’ characters. And those who frequent the Mission’s streets may find some aspects of the film, such as the lowrider focus, curious -- especially in contrast to more prominent car-culture scenes in Southern California and even the South Bay. But if you do stick with **La Mission,** you’ll find yourself drawn in, primarily by Bratt’s fiery, troubled Che. Whenever he’s on the screen, La Mission flows, over any awkward or paint-by-numbers moments in the script or direction, toward something like redemption.