It doesn’t take long for Benjamin Bratt’s shirt to come off in La Mission, a new film from his brother, Peter Bratt. As Che Rivera, a smooth-talking, ex-con single dad in San Francisco’s Mission district, Benjamin’s character is the anchor of the film, representing the intersection of tradition and cultural change while evolving — however slowly — as a person and a parent. The bonus is that he shows just enough skin (much of which is tatted up for the movie) to be a sexy leading man, while playing a lowrider-lovin’ Dad with serious machismo and nagging issues with abusing booze and picking fights.
La Mission is only the second film from Benjamin Bratt’s brother, Peter Bratt, but it captures the spirit of its namesake and the essence of its characters better than many films with bigger budgets and more experienced directors. The movie follows Che’s arc as a prideful father who drives busses by day and beams with devotion for his cars, his friends, his son and his faith. When Che learns that his teenage son Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez) is gay, his circumscribed world is suddenly rocked. Even worse? Jess doesn’t formally come out — Dad discovers some racy photos that no kid should leave lying around.
With the foundation of his values shaken to the core, all of Che’s tisk-tisk tendencies rear their ugly heads. Punches are thrown, liquor is consumed and there’s a lot of weary gazing out into nothing as he sinks under the weight of loss. After kicking Jess out, Che’s left to wallow in the pain of stubborn ways and deep-seated beliefs — all while pursuing the cute yuppie neighbor who wears knit tights and bikes a lot. What’s refreshing about La Mission is that everyone’s foibles seem real: Che and Jess share an awkward lunch that could go all Lifetime movie, but instead stays tense, offering only a glimmer of hope with an uncertainty that feels authentic.
Still, Peter Bratt’s relative inexperience is evident in many of La Mission’s tendencies. Most of the glitches are surface-level, and could have been remedied with more courageous editing that serves the film’s story more than its love affair with setting and subject. To its credit, La Mission interweaves the vibrant murals and Native American street dance in the neighborhood that signify its deep cultural roots and offers a window on a uniquely American culture that’s largely ignored in the movies. But clocking in at nearly two hours, it would be a true gem with some aggressive cuts. Yes, it’s fun to see a shirtless Che dancing and ironing. After more than few seconds, though, it feels more like self-indulgence than a sexy aside.
As an ensemble, La Mission’s cast excels at blending well while creating tangible characters even with, in some cases, little screen time. Bratt’s portrayal of Rivera is not unlike that of George Clooney’s performance in Up in the Air, in which the latter actor brings his class and smoldering charisma to a character with a cloudy moral compass. Like Clooney, Bratt manages to transcend all the immediate pitfalls of effortless charm to wield it within the confines of his troubled character, toning down the Hollywood polish and creating a less worldly affect.
Undeniably, La Mission has its rough edges and less-than-perfect production choices. Much like its characters, though, its imperfections are almost endearing, making it a worthwhile watch with a little ways to go before becoming fully realized.