In La Mission, a Latino ex-con living in San Francisco's Mission district, Che Rivera ( Benjamin Bratt ) , discovers that his beloved teenage son, Jesse ( Jeremy Ray Valdez ) , is gay and has a boyfriend ( who is Caucasian, to boot ) , which causes a shattering conflict between the father and child. Portraying the macho, complex Che, Brattlong on our radar thanks to roles in the TV series Law & Order as well as the films Pinero ( in which he played the titular bisexual poet, Miguel Pinero ) and the lamentable but well-meaning Madonna/Rupert Everett vehicle The Next Best Thingturns in an award-worthy performance, while the adorable Valdez completely avoids cliché as the headstrong, self-assured Jesse.
Written and directed by Bratt's brother, Peter, La Mission premiered to standing ( and teary-eyed ) ovations at 2009's Sundance Film Festival. Benjamin, who also served as producer, and Valdez discussed the film over breakfast.
Lawrence Ferber: Che represents such a dichotomya warm, good person, yet hardwired to react with violence and fury towards his son's homosexuality despite a deep love for him and family.
Benjamin Bratt: It would be all too easy to demonize Che. Peter wanted to illuminate both characters' journeys. Jesse probably has the more difficult journey, which is in the face of fear, potential rejection, violence and even death, to reveal who he is to the person he loves the most with the likelihood of losing that relationship. On the other side of the coin you have someone who has an equal fear of losing the person he cherishes the most. Che can't help but see Jesse as a direct reflection of who he is as a man. And if he's gay, which is feminine, he's "less than." Calling someone a faggot or bitch is to feminize them. That speaks to misogyny. That's the lesser of the species. But that's how most men are socialized. Doesn't matter if you grew up in the Mission or Des Moines.
LF: Jeremy, have you ever known someone in your character's situation?
Jeremy Ray Valdez: Yes, I have. I spoke with a lot of my gay friends and asked what was it like coming out. One of [ the film's ] advisors, John Amaechithe first NBA player to come outI got to hang out with on set. And he told me about how guys who were his buddies, that he high-fived in the locker room and had great relationships with, turned their back on him [ when he came out ] . He said he didn't want to be a part of the NBA or play basketball anymore because people were so mean. That gave me a lot to think about. But we wanted to portray Jesse as a strong character. Today's gay youth is different than last generation's. Now there's a sense of empowerment and they're not afraid to come out as much as they used to be. "Love me for who I am" is what he's saying.
LF: Ben, you and Peter were born in San Francisco, grew up in and around the Mission district, and employed a lot of locals for the film's production. Did anyone involved share Che's disgust regarding the gay aspect?
BB: There was an incident when we were shooting the scene outside the house and Jesse was getting a beatdown [ from Che ] . Some homies pulled up and asked, "Why is he getting the beating?" We didn't hide the storyline from anyone; in fact, we encouraged people to understand what it was about, and when they discovered why he was receiving the beating in the context of the story [ their reaction ] was, "Good, shit, he deserves it." But the community could not have been more supportive.
LF: How was working together?
BB: The entire story and authenticity we were aspiring to as filmmakers hinged on Jeremy's performance. If you don't believe he is who he's supposed to be, the whole story falls apart. But he got it, the balance that one must maintain to walk in both [ the Latino and gay ] worlds. He had the strut, the physical presence he inherited from his father so he could support himself to survive in the hood. Yet he also had the sensitivity and genuine love.
JRV: The toughest scene was when [ Che and Jesse ] are eating together after he comes out. Ben gave me just as much emotional reaction when the camera wasn't on him. It's a harsh moment but wonderful. And there's one subtle thing going on. It's the way his characters hold their silverware. Che held his fork like a caveman…
BB: Like a prisoner guards his plate, like a shovel…
JRV: I didn't notice it when we filmed the scene but it's right there, the difference between these two characters.
BB: It's a good indication of the difference between a brute and someone with refinement.
LF: The scene where Che encounters Jesse's boyfriend, played by Max Rosenak, and attacks him, holding him against a wall by his neck, is pretty terrifying and convincing.
BB: In hindsight I feel bad. I think I really spooked Max. I lifted him off the ground, so his reaction was quite real. He gave me a wide berth afterwards, let's put it that way.
LF: A major part of Che's culture, family and social life involves low-rider automobiles, and there's a wonderful sequence where their pimped-out hydraulic low-riders take a drive around the city. Can you explain low-rider culture for the uninitiated?
BB: Low-rider culture in part came out of a political statement. They really emerged back in the era of the hot rod. This was post-WWII when everyone was doing well and there was a rising middle class and people were buying new cars. One of the few cultures in American society that couldn't afford new cars was immigrant Latinos, and so they were forced to go to the junkyards and reclaim other people's discards and most of the time they were Chevys. They took these cars and gave them what we refer to in the film as an "Aztec makeover." They customize them with paint and glyphs of their cultural myths. But at that time the popular kind of custom car of the greater white society was the hot rod. The higher and faster the car was the cooler you were in white society. So Chicanos took it in completely the other direction, which was to drop it as low as you could, scraping was preferable, and go as slow as possible.
JRV: Low and slow.
BB: The scene you're referring to was designed as a set piece by Peter and it's what we refer to as "The Brown Experience." What we're trying to capture is the feeling anyone would have riding in a low-rider. When you go on one, it doesn't matter what neighborhoodChinatown, the Mission, Pacific Heightspeople stop and stare and take in the beauty in an appreciative way of the car and the obvious work that goes into maintaining something so timeless. What is the draw to the bouncing cars and hydraulics? The question need not be asked once you go through the brown experience. You get it.
See www.lamissionthemovie.com for more information and release dates.