The House that Jack Built: LAFF Review

The House That Jack Built - H 2013

The House That Jack Built - H 2013

Working-class realism and a charismatic lead performance elevate a story that tends toward cliche.

Nearly 20 years after filmmaker Joseph B. Vasquez wrote the screenplay, this Bronx tale arrives onscreen as a world premiere presentation of the L.A. Film Festival.

In the Bronx-set drama The House That Jack Built, a young, bullheaded man embarks on a doomed project: He tries to make real his very unrealistic notions about a happy family. E.J. Bonilla plays the industrious drug dealer Jack, who buys an apartment building to house his extended family, only to see his ideals crash head-on into a wall of dysfunction. Using Bronx locations and a strong cast of Caribbean-Latino actors, director Henry Barrial constructs a convincing portrait of a neighborhood and its Nuyorican culture, staying true to the scale and sensibility that filmmaker Joseph B. Vasquez envisioned for the movie.

With its street-crime turf war and heavy-handed melodrama, this House -- the last screenplay by the troubled Vasquez, who died at 33, four years after his 1991 indie feature Hangin’ With the Homeboys put him on the map -- is also built of well-worn narrative elements. But as a project nurtured through years of scrapped filming attempts by producer Michael Lieber, the finished movie fulfills a promise to its writer and is bound to stir interest among fans of his work. In the hands of a specialty distributor, the feature, which received its world premiere as a competition entry in the Los Angeles Film Festival, could parlay the Vasquez connection and Bonilla’s charismatic turn into modest theatrical returns and a successful run in the home-screen arena.

The cock of the walk in his Puerto Rican neighborhood, Jack owns a bodega whose chief business is the sale of illegal drugs -- a fact that his willfully naive mother (Saundra Santiago) learns through gossip at the laundromat. Jack holds tight to memories of a less-complicated childhood and to a sense of old-school machismo, taking the “lord” part of “landlord” seriously in the small building he has bought and refurbished, where his relatives enjoy rent-free apartments but not one another.

For all Jack’s wishful thinking, the reality is that his mother and alcoholic father (John Herrera) can tolerate each other only in small doses; the marriage between his brother, Richie (Leo Minaya), and Rosa (Flor De Liz Perez) is in shreds; and Jack is alienating sister Nadia (Rosal Colon), the family member who might be his best ally, because he refuses to accept her homosexuality. At the same time, he’s pushing away his fiancee, Lily (Melissa Fumero), chafing at the prospect of being domesticated.

As the family drama mounts -- with a building full of altercations all reaching the same fevered pitch -- Jack has to contend with Chino (Fidel Vicioso), a slick dealer who’s encroaching on his territory. The climactic sequence, revolving around an increasingly suspicious and distraught Richie, is one of a number of key scenes whose dialogue hits the nail too squarely on the head. The intended comic relief of a subplot concerning squabbling cousins (Javier Munoz and Desmin Borges) offers diminishing returns.

Yet despite the more forced and obvious aspects of the story, Barrial taps into the everyday reality of his characters’ New York with an impressive immediacy, abetted by especially fine contributions from cinematographer Luca Del Puppo and composers Lili Haydn and Christopher Westlake.

Performances range from the serviceable to the impressive. With his photogenic beauty and nuanced intensity, Bonilla more than holds the center as a leading man. (He had a memorable turn in the ensemble drama Four, whose cast received a jury award for best performance at the L.A. Film Festival in 2012.) His wannabe patriarch Jack is often unlikable but compellingly moral as he stumbles toward a better self.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (Narrative Competition)

Production company: Walk Up Prods.

Cast: E.J. Bonilla, Melissa Fumero, Leo Minaya, Saundra Santiago, John Herrera, Flor De Liz Perez, Rosal Colon, Judith Delgado, Fidel Vicioso

Director: Henry Barrial

Writers: Joseph B. Vasquez

Producers: Michael Lieber, Hitesh Patel, Sam Kitt

Executive producers: Delilah Tomba Patel, Renee Lantner

Director of photography: Luca Del Puppo

Production designer: Kelly Kuykendall

Music: Lili Haydn, Christopher Westlake

Co-producers: Mark Stolaroff, Daniel Grodinsky, Sig de Miguel, Stephen Vincent, Ezra Doner, Andrew Manser

Costume designer: Hannah Kittell

Editor: Eric Strand

No MPAA rating, 88 min.