Combustible Celluloid
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With: Benjamin Bratt, Jeremy Ray Valdez, Erika Alexander, Max Rosenak, Patrick Shining Elk, Talisa Soto, Jesse Borrego, Kevin Michael Richardson, Ruben Gonzalez, Tina Huang, Melvina Jones, Rene Quinones, Anthony Santana, Christopher Borgzinner, Edwin Brown
Written by: Peter Bratt
Directed by: Peter Bratt
MPAA Rating: R for language, some violence and sexual content
Running Time: 117
Date: 01/19/2009

La Mission (2010)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Mission Bells

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Some of the early notices on Peter Bratt's La Mission called it "overly earnest." That, coupled with the movie's ambitious length of 117 minutes, made it sound like an unpleasant prospect, and one that would cause me to have to find a polite way of panning it. Happily, not long after I sat down to watch it, I found myself totally absorbed, even welcomed, into this little tucked-away subculture.

The San Francisco-born actor Benjamin Bratt -- perhaps best known for his roles in Traffic and Miss Congeniality -- teamed up with his older brother Peter for this movie, set and shot in the Mission District of San Francisco. They both produced, Peter wrote and directed, and Benjamin stars as Che Rivera, a bus driver who has lived in the neighborhood for years, and loves to restore cars in his spare time. Che is a widower and his son Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez) has grown up into a studious young man.

But Jesse has a secret: he's gay and has a white lover (Max Rosenak), a situation that Che will no doubt disapprove of. And disapprove he does, in an explosive scene. Following that, Che and Jesse make several attempts to get along, but Che is just too old school and can't deal with his son's reality. Meanwhile, Che has run-ins with a new neighbor in his building, Lena (Erika Alexander), whom he sees as someone with money, interested in "slumming." There are many other characters, all of which serve to paint a kind of portrait -- a mural -- of the neighborhood. The movie has been criticized for its lack of a tight story, but the Bratts are clearly more interested in capturing the mood of a place and time. It may not be a truly realistic mood, but it's a heartfelt one.

Happily, the movie has Bratt's Che at its center, and it's a powerhouse performance, and a very strong character. He's a bit frightening, and very commanding -- as seen in an early scene on his bus as he chases off two gang-bangers with a loud radio -- but as we get to know him, we slowly, gradually begin to discover a warm side. Bratt knows this guy well and channels a lifetime's worth of experience into him; it's his most intense, intimate performance since the underrated PiƱero (2001).

If anything, La Mission could have done with a bit less plot, merely following Che around the neighborhood for a while; with a guy like Che, conflicts arise naturally. Even so, this labor of love is remarkable for its open heart. It truly wants to share this neighborhood with the world.

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