Actor Benjamin Bratt has made a name for himself over the years as a diverse actor who takes on a wide range of mainstream and indie roles in both film and television, but we seldom have seen Bratt take on a character like the one he plays in La Mission, a film that is truly a family affair and a rather compelling film as well.
Bratt stars as Che Rivera, a hard-nosed ex-con and former alcoholic who has reformed his wayward ways, but is still a man to be both respected and feared in the Mission district of San Francisco, the very same area both Benjamin and his writer-director brother Peter Bratt grew up in. Che lives an honest life now, working as a bus driver while raising his only son Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez) on his own after his wife passed away. Ironically, since he toils as a bus driver, his main passion in life is building up and showing off exquisite lowrider classic cars, an activity he used to share with his son, who has started to distance himself from his father, and when Che finds out why, it rattles the nerves of this formidable man. One night while checking in on his son, who ditched out on Che and his friends' weekly cruising pilgrimage through the city, he finds some pictures of his Jesse and realizes that he is gay, a stigma that is more than frowned upon in this community. After a violent confrontation with his son, he disowns him and he's forced to question his own machismo-infused lifestyle and beliefs as he tries to get back the son he loves.
For fans of Benjamin Bratt from shows like Law & Order and Miss Congeniality, you might be surprised at the Bratt you see on screen here. He's not the hunky dreamboat the ladies swoon over here, but it's probably the best performance he's ever given. Bratt truly shines as Che in an utterly deep and intriguing performance with a character that continues to evolve over the course of the film, and we just marvel as the layers of Che are continually pulled back. His character demands respect from his towering presence and the tattoos from his former lifestyle that indicate, at the very least, Che is someone you don't want to piss off. This is demonstrated brilliantly in an early scene where two young punks get on his bus, blasting the rap music that he can't stand, and as he inches closer to the kids, we see them shrivel with each step closer he takes. The performance feels incredibly authentic, which is not only due to Bratt's performance, but that the character was based off a real-life acquaintance of both Benjamin and his brother Peter Bratt, who wrote and directed the film, which shines a truthful light on this intriguing community that the Brothers Bratt grew up in as children.
Peter Bratt, making his follow-up film to his 1996 debut Follow Me Home, has crafted a wonderful dramatic film here, with rich, vibrant characters and the setting of Mission that is truly a character in and of itself. The community is incredibly diverse - in both good and bad ways - with a bizarre blend of working-class families like Che, young hipsters like Che's lovely but strong-willed neighbor Lena (the wonderful Erica Alexander) and the bad elements like wannabe thugs and drug dealers as well, that all combine to form one unique melting pot of a community. One of my few beefs with the film is that Che and his buddies, which include Jesse Borego's Rene, Kevin Michael Richardson's Dee and Rene Quinonez's Esteban, have such clichéd dialogue at times from Peter Bratt's script. It seems that whenever these friends greet each other, they have some worn-out saying like, "I'm just a squirrel trying to get a nut," or any number of phrases like that. However, if that is how they actually talk in the real Mission, so be it... but it was a little tedious to me. Still, dialogue quibbles aside, Peter Bratt has one hell of a script here, juggling numerous sub-plots here and still managing to blend it all into a seamless narrative.
Not only does Bratt give us the main through-line of Che trying to resolve his issues with his son's sexual orientation, but we get a terrific sub-plot with Bratt's Che and his neighbor Lena, played by the tremendously talented Erica Alexander. This is certainly one actress I have to keep an eye out for, because her performance as Lena was a delight to behold, with a character almost as complex as Che. Both Che and Lena start out as bickering neighbors and it's great to see where the relationship goes from there. We're also given a glimpse into the fascinating lowrider culture as well, as we watch Che and his best friend Rene, also played nicely by Jesse Borrego, take a total piece-of-shit car and turn it into an utterly stunning machine. What I really enjoyed about this film, though, is that even though the Bratt's could've sung a completely different song about the neighborhood they grew up in, they pulled no punches here, showing both the good and bad sides of this area, while being respectful to both - an accomplishment that shouldn't go unnoticed. While the ending is a bit soft and a tad unoriginal (Good Will Hunting-esque, but in a much different way), I still left the film with a unique sense of understanding and comprehension for a place I've never set foot in and this deeply-layered story is more than compelling enough to make this film worth your while.
La Mission not only offers a towering, career-best performance from Benjamin Bratt, but a thoroughly unique look at a thoroughly American neighborhood that can be admired, appreciated and respected no matter what neighborhood you hail from.