A dynamic glimpse of contemporary Los Angeles funneled into an old-fashioned coming-of-age saga, Lowriders isn’t always persuasive, but it has plenty of heart. Peruvian-born director Ricardo de Montreuil elicits strong performances for his first English-language feature, the story of a young graffiti artist, his ex-con brother and their old-school “Pops,” played with mournful reserve by Demian Bichir. The actors find the emotional weight in often overwritten material, but what sets the film apart is its deeply felt celebration of the lowrider tradition — the loving customization and display of vintage cars — that thrives in the predominantly Latino Eastside of Los Angeles.
The screenplay, credited to Elgin James (Little Birds) and Cheo Hodari Coker (creator of the series Luke Cage), weaves in illuminating bits of historical background about the tradition’s Mexican roots and stateside demonization, chiefly through the occasional voiceover of the central character, gifted amateur muralist Danny (Gabriel Chavarria). Between the lines there’s something both proud and defensive in Danny’s musings as he points out that he’s never been to Mexico, speaks imperfect Spanish and regularly ventures outside his native Boyle Heights to non-Latino neighborhoods of the city.
Danny’s taciturn father, Miguel (Bichir), owner of an auto repair shop that he has hopefully named Alvarez and Sons, hasn’t spoken to his older boy, Francisco “Ghost” Alvarez, in years and doesn’t understand Danny’s murals and graffiti. The only art that matters to Miguel is the kind that has souped up and decorated his beloved ’61 Chevy Impala, transforming it into the darkly dazzling Green Poison, his shot at the big prize in the annual competitive meet for lowriders in Elysian Park.
The road to vehicular victory is complicated, in somewhat hackneyed fashion, by the return of Miguel’s firstborn, whose prison stint for theft was long enough that he’s never before met his father’s second wife, Gloria (Eva Longoria). Played by Theo Rossi (Sons of Anarchy) with the slow-burning, soft-spoken menace of a young Mickey Rourke, Ghost is the catalyst for a series of increasingly melodramatic plot points. Even when the dialogue spells out every emotion in underlined caps, Rossi is never less than compelling.
The film’s on-the-nose writing is most successful in Danny’s arguments with his new girlfriend, downtown denizen Lorelai (Melissa Benoist, of Supergirl). A photographer who’s drawn to Danny’s murals before they meet, she pushes him toward the hipster limelight, boosting his confidence as an artist while sparking friction between them. Danny wonders pointedly what makes art legit, implicitly asking how gentrification defines the terms of success — a charged topic these days, with activists in Boyle Heights targeting art galleries as carpetbaggers.
Benoist and Chavarria bring their characters’ social differences to life along with their attraction. In an especially incisive exchange, Lorelai offers an analytical critique of Danny’s work to a gallery owner, romanticizing its street cred. She’s championing him while reducing him to a cliché.
The scene is a well-played dramatic corollary to the Sixth Street Bridge, the physical and symbolic dividing line — and connection — between working-class East L.A. and the fashionable Arts District. De Montreuil makes good use of the bridge, a familiar Hollywood location, in an early sequence involving Danny and two of the longtime friends he’ll soon leave behind in the name of art, the longhaired skateboarder Chuy (Tony Revolori) and college-bound scholarship student Claudia (Yvette Monreal).
Amid rising family tensions and not one but two improbable climaxes for the narrative, Longoria’s understated performance grounds the story with down-to-earth smarts and resilience; Gloria knows her way around a car engine as well as a quinceañera. (Another calming influence is Cress Williams as one of the most chill police detectives ever to grace the big screen.)
Just as the screenplay needlessly enunciates longings, fears and doubts that the actors, Bichir especially, make wordlessly apparent, de Montreuil (Mancora) and DP Andres E. Sanchez overdo the kinetic camerawork. But beneath the surface busyness, verbal and visual, there’s a robust sense of place that fuels the proceedings. With clear affection for his characters, the filmmaker shines a new light on a marginalized craft, born and bred in the Americas.
Production companies: A BH Tilt and Imagine presentation in association with Telemundo of a Blumhouse/Brian Grazer film
Distributor: BH Tilt
Cast: Demian Bichir, Gabriel Chavarria, Theo Rossi, Melissa Benoist, Tony Revolori, Eva Longoria, Yvette Monreal, Cress Williams
Director: Ricardo de Montreuil
Screenwriters: Elgin James, Cheo Hodari Coker
Producers: Brian Grazer, Jason Blum
Executive producers: Couper Samuelson, Jeanette Volturno, Kim Roth, Mister Cartoon, Estevan Oriol
Director of photography: Andres E. Sanchez
Production designer: Melanie Paizis-Jones
Costume designer: Mirren Gordon-Crozier
Editors: Billy Fox, Kiran Pallegada
Composer: Bryan Senti
Casting: Terri Taylor