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Macho meets homo in the laudable but terrible "La Mission" 

Wednesday, Apr 14 2010
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Watered-down Jungian analysis meets a GLAAD-approved weepie in Peter Bratt's second feature, starring brother Benjamin (who also produces) as a swaggering, neck-tattooed macho who will finally realize the damage his rock-hard masculinity has caused during a funeral for a teenage gangbanger, his tears mixing with the rain as he flashes back on the fists he threw at his own son. As subtle as a face-punch, La Mission nobly continues a necessary conversation about homophobia, but paves the way to hell with its own good intentions.

Che Rivera (Bratt) is immediately introduced as a kind of brownsploitation hero, strutting down 24th Street and past the murals of the San Francisco neighborhood of the title (where the Bratt brothers grew up) as Curtis Mayfield's "Kung Fu" booms. The 46-year-old widowed Muni driver spends his off hours boxing; cruising in his low-rider with his pals; directing his rage about gentrification toward his new upstairs neighbor, yoga-mat-toting women's-shelter employee Lena (Erika Alexander); and inviting his high-school-senior, UCLA-bound son, Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez), to pickup basketball games, barbecues, and other rites of manhood. Jesse, however, prefers male bonding of a different sort, like sexy thug role-playing with his lily-white boyfriend, Jordan (Max Rosenak), in his house in tony St. Francis Wood. When Che discovers a stack of Polaroids documenting his only child's recent night of Castro boy-bar fun, it's gay panic at the Frisco: He pummels and disowns his son.

As the Bratts tick off the usual coming-out-narrative plot points, La Mission strains to be both a thoughtful tale of one man's emotional and psychic rehabilitation and a critique of outmoded, sclerotic patriarchal customs in Latino culture. It's a laudable goal, but one that too often becomes nothing more than a series of schematic, teachable moments — suitable, maybe, for awareness training at a PFLAG meeting, but too earnestly didactic to have much lasting effect.

Peter Bratt singles out Jungian psychologist and UCSF professor Allan B. Chinen's 1993 book Beyond the Hero: Classic Stories of Men in Search of Soul as an inspiration; too preoccupied with his exegesis of animus and anima, Bratt seems not to have bothered with basic story logic. Che's dead wife, of whom we learn nothing, is identified in a photo as having lived from 1963 to 1985 — meaning that Jesse was either born miraculously after Mom died or that the Mission High honor student, class of '09, is 24 by the time he receives his diploma. At other times, Bratt's script relies too heavily on lazy, "everybody hurts" shorthand: Che is not only an ex-con but also a recovering alcoholic, retreating to the hills with a bottle of tequila after he discovers Jesse's Uranian tendencies. Similarly, neighbor Lena ominously tells Che, "I know what it's like to have a secret" after he has beaten up his son; later, as they — unbelievably — make sweet, tender love while Jesse lies in a hospital bed after another homophobic attack, a close-up of scar tissue and her postcoital tears overstate the obvious.

But the biggest liability is Benjamin Bratt's vato act, his cries of "Stay brown!" and "Know what I'm saying?" and "¿Entiendes?" That machismo minstrelsy becomes even more apparent in the scenes with Che's fellow low-riders — minor roles that, like Che's brother, Rene (Jesse Borrego), still register as recognizable, fully inhabited characters. The actor's hammy star posturing is as soluble as the temporary tats all over his body.

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Melissa Anderson

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