Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Gun Hill Road

Understated and admirable, if a bit too on the nose, Gun Hill Road is a familiar Bronx tale with a slight twist.  A father returns home from prison to discover that his teenage son is transgendered.  What follows is expected-- the father is pissed, a hot head, and a bit stupid, the long-suffering mother is caring, endlessly supportive and bit underwritten, and the son is conflicted and brooding.  The best aspects of Rasheed Ernesto Green's film is the assured handling of young Michael aka Vanessa, played with minimalist grace and natural expressiveness by Harmony Santana.  Fluidly written and developed enough to provide context and circumstance, but shaded with a mix of longing and curiosity, the story of the a young boy more comfortable as a young girl is fresh, sweet and poignant.  It's unfortunate, and a great disservice that the dithering parental strife gets most of the screen time.  For while well-intentioned, and mercifully, not too over the top, it makes Gun Hill Road bland and soggy, while the sturdier foundation of the film floats around in search of a clearer narrative, and more engrossing and braver story that should be told.  Green's freshman film (a graduate from the short film world) could have used a bit more aesthetic distinction in its own right-- the muted visual palette only makes the muted familial dynamic seem even more oppressive.

Esai Morales stars as Enrique, recently paroled but hardly calmed-- the first scene in the film showcases his blood lust and carnality.  Upon coming home to his wife, Angela (Judy Reyes, Scrubs) and son, it's more of a whimper than a warm welcome.  The family dynamic stays like this, and while there's a nice, little sense of a lived-in family that can't communicate, nor express, and that lack of melodrama differentiates Gun Hill Road from a typical Lifetime Movie of the Week, it also becomes a slow slog to sit through.  Minimalist is fine, hell even applaudable, but after enough time the film becomes too one-note, too inexpressive, and a little too boring.  Morales and Reyes are more than capable actors, but their both stuck in such stagnant, reactionary parts as written, that it defeats the purpose of the films trying-to-be-real aesthetic.  Thankfully, whenever Santana is on screen, Gun Hill Road picks up momentum, for Michael\Vanessa never seemingly asks for any sort of acceptance-- not from his disapproving and ignorant father, whose too seethed on pride, nor his peers, and there are moments of quiet gracefulness that make the film seem more revolutionary than it is.  She is realer than anything else in this faux-heartbreaker.  C+

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