Title: Gun Hill Road
Writer-director: Rashaad Ernesto Green
Starring: Esai Morales, Judy Reyes, Harmony Santana, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Vincent Laresca, Dennis Johnson
When critics use the shorthand phrase “festival film,” in either praise or derision, they essentially mean movies like writer-director Rashaad Ernesto Green’s feature debut, “Gun Hill Road”. From its evocative title and kind of self-consciously gritty style to its blowout emotional moments and hook-y social issue conceit transposed to a working-class familial setting, the film seems constructed in moralizing fashion to pull dramatic levers and kickstart off-screen dialogues, so it’s no particular surprise that it played in dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Its failure to land a top-tier indie distributor, however, speaks to the movie’s familiar qualities and the unfortunate fact that its narrative just doesn’t have enough oomph to leave a lasting impact.
When Enrique Rodriguez (Esai Morales) returns home to the Bronx after a stint in prison, he steps into a family system in disharmony. His wife Angela (Judy Reyes) has been carrying on with Hector (Vincent Laresca), though she puts the brakes on that relationship. More baffling to Enrique is his son Michael (Harmony Santana), meanwhile, whose interests have totally changed, and who seems aloof, effeminate and unknowable to him. And with good reason — Michael has been dressing up in women’s clothes, and taken an alter ego, “Vanessa.” He wants to change sexes, something he may or may not have explicitly shared with his mother, who remains sensitive to his half-hidden transformation.
Despite revealing his pre-op transsexual status, at a local poetry slam Michael/Vanessa bags a seemingly game male suitor, Antoine (Dennis Johnson), before he eventually reveals himself to be only interested in what adolescent males are most. While Enrique struggles more generally to keep on the straight and narrow, when he fully finds out about Michael’s proclivities, it threatens to push him over the edge, and cost him his newfound freedom.
It’s not that Gun Hill Road feels phony or inauthentic. In its own way, akin to something like Jim McKay’s Our Song, the movie has a certain convincing, rooted setting. And Santana’s performance — at once raw and delicate, coyly tiptoeing around the actor’s real off-screen gender — is quite good, and engaging. The problem is that the film’s stakes feel so small; its scenes feel only half-developed, to the point of initial, surface conflict; and its ending feels so pat and predictable. Green shows an ability to work with actors and, in the film’s press notes, crafts a passionate statement about the need for increased and open channels of communication in urban and minority communities. But he doesn’t take his story to interesting or consequential places.
There’s more than one hint that Enrique is tortured by unwanted sexual contact while in prison, and that he views his son’s confusion regarding his own sexual identity through this rubric (which is of course different than being gay, but that’s beside the point). The problem is that Gun Hill Road presents Enrique as a character who is neither fully sullen and uncommunicative, nor able to break through and ask Michael what his behavior means, and what his feelings are. It exists in an all-too-familiar grey area, full of surface drama but no honest conversations. If there were more dynamic outside forces acting upon Enrique and/or Michael, the movie might have heightened stakes to stand in contrast to its personal dilemmas. But a cuckolded thug husband threatening the man his wife has already politely kicked to the curb? Yawn… been there, seen that.
Written by: Brent Simon