Gun Hill Road: Sundance Review

Larry Busacca/Getty Images
A tired though vigorously acted story about a father confronted with a son who wants to be a girl.

Rashaad Ernesto Green focuses much of the film on the least interesting character, played by Esai Morales.

PARK CITY — (U.S. Dramatic Competition) In his feature debut, Gun Hill Road, writer-director Rashaad Ernesto Green displays compassion for his characters and an ability to create strong scenes to underscore his thematic concerns. But the story itself is too shopworn especially at Sundance where countless films have presented dysfunctional families where parents and offspring are at odds over the young people’s unwillingness to yield to parental oversight of their lives.

Since Gun Hill Road displays sensitivity toward a character whose sexual identity is evolving, the film will catch festival programmers’ eyes especially for the LGBTQ community. Modest theatrical exposure to a very targeted audience is also a possibility.

Green’s story takes place in a multi-ethnic Bronx neighborhood where most of the male characters suffer from exaggerated machismo. The worst is its protagonist, Enrique (Esai Morales), released from three years in prison into a radically changed world. That his wife, Angela (Judy Reyes), had an affair while he was in stir he can accept as “natural.” He just wants it over now that he’s back.

But when he comes to realize his beloved teenage son, Michael (newcomer Harmony Santana in the film’s most complicated yet successful performance), is exploring life as a female, he flips out. His all too revealing bellow is: “What does this say about me?”

No question Latino culture has its share of hotheaded, super macho guys but Enrique comes especially loaded. Barely out of prison on a parole that can end with the slightest misstep, he is quickly robbing people and beating guys up. The only way to cure his son, Enrique figures, is to drag him to a female prostitute. Which he does.

Young filmmakers arrive on sets today with so little knowledge of film history or literature that you can’t be sure that Green doesn’t realize how clichéd this scene is. The same goes for all the scenes where the mother must play peacemaker between the enraged father and cowering son.

Much fresher and dramatically alive are the scenes where Michael ventures into the world as a woman. He appears older than he does as a boy and soon attracts the attention of a player who doesn’t even realize he’s hitting on a transsexual. Their eventual relationship, a case of needy emotional comfort for Michael and sexual exploitation by the older man, is much more compelling than the tired father-son dynamic.

But Green has chosen for his focus to fall on Enrique, in many ways the least interesting character in his story, rather than the son or even the mother who is surprisingly protective and understanding.

Santana, for whom this is a first acting performance, connects readily with an audience. His pain and fear of his father is very real, just as real as his joyous liberation when he sallies forth as a woman.

Reyes too portrays a conflicted soul, both as her character must terminate her relationship with a trusted lover and as she makes room in her heart for a son that is now more a daughter.

Morales, who can’t be blamed for his character’s lack of dimension, does bring enough heat to Enrique that you can almost see the smoke rising from his head. The man means to bully his way through life without much thought and certainly no empathy for anyone else.

The film ably brings the Gun Hill Road section of the Bronx to life, making you realize Green is on firmer ground documenting the world of his birthplace then in creating fiction that contains new insights into that world. That may come with future films.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Dramatic Competition
Production companies: SimonSays Entertainment in association with A Small Production Company
Cast: Esai Morales, Judy Reyes, Harmony Santana, Vincent Laresca, Robin de Jesus, Miriam Colon
Director/screenwriter: Rashaad Ernesto Green
Producers: Ron Simons, Michelle-Anne M. Small
Executive producer: Esai Morales
Director of photography: Daniel Patterson
Production designer: Maya Sigel
Music: Enrique Hank Feldman, Stefan Swanson
Costume designer: Elisabeth Vastola
Editor: Sara Corrigan
Sales: Eastgate Pictures
No rating, 87 minutes