Like La Mission before it, Gun Hill Road is about a Hispanic family - in this case, the wife and child of a former drug dealer released from prison -- dealing with issues on the forefront and, at the same time, frontier of sexual politics.
La Mission was about a father who disowns his son when he discovers that he's gay. In Gun Hill Road, the father, Enrique (Esai Morales), comes home after three years in the pen to find that his teen son has some gender issues.
Son Michael (Harmony Santana) regularly shows up at local poetry slams dressed as a woman named Vanessa, who spits painful poetic lines about his/her dilemma in dealing with being pre-operative transgender.
Pre-op - and pro-active: Michael regularly gets illicit hormone pills and injections from a neighborhood hook-up. But Enrique remains in denial about Michael's behavior, convinced that he merely has to bully Michael to cure his gender confusion.
It's unclear if we are meant to believe that Enrique's intolerance and embarrassment -- and the harassment Michael gets at school and on the streets -- is a cultural issue for Hispanics alone. Obviously, it's not; there are few communities -- other than the LGBT organizations -- that champion the transgendered. Enrique isn't afraid of Michael's identity -- he's afraid for his own, of how it will look to his friends if his son suddenly becomes a woman.
The implication is that Enrique also has issues because he was sexually abused in prison, by a convict who comes in and out of the story. But the truth is that, if even gay rights seem a step too far to some, then the concerns of the transgender are of even less interest to the intolerant.
Yet Gun Hill Road works best when it focuses on Michael, who is experiencing his/her first romantic entanglement: a young man who approaches Vanessa after a poetry slam -- and stays interested even when Vanessa admits that he/she still has male genitalia. The emotional levels are intriguing, when you factor in sexual identity, raging hormones, young love and Michael's own sense of figuring out who he is when he's out in the world.
The dramaturgy in writer-director Rashaad Ernesto Green's film can get heavy-handed. He puts a lot of plot parts in motion but doesn't necessarily find ways to tie them back in by the conclusion. Still, thanks to a deeply felt performance by Morales, Gun Hill Road is a film worth seeing. And Harmony Santana as Michael/Vanessa is natural and touching.
Gun Hill Road is part of a deluge of late-summer independent releases that may wash through or past your multiplex, but it's one whose title you should remember. It's hokey at times -- but it also knows how to move you on a personal level.
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