Two years ago, Peter Bratt's San Francisco-set La Mission told the story of a father who rejects his gay son; today, the Bronx-set melodrama Gun Hill Road revisits a similar family struggle with higher stakes. In both movies, a father has rigid notions of masculinity to which his son does not comply, but in Rashaad Ernesto Green's feature debut, Dad is an ex-con with a dangerous temper and the son is transgender. Despite the characters and grittiness of milieu, the overall vibe is that of a soap operatic Afterschool Special. Though a Sundance Film Festival Dramatic Competition selection and the San Francisco Frameline Festival opening night film, it is doubtful Gun Hill Road can generate enough buzz to make much of a dent in a crowded summer box office.
Just paroled after three years in prison, Enrique (Esai Morales) returns to a world that has moved on without him. Wife Angela (Judy Reyes) and son Michael (Harmony Santana) welcome him back into the family home, but Angela is distant and Michael is no longer the little boy he used to take to Yankees games. Now a teenager, Michael is a pre-op transsexual, trying to hurry the process along with black market hormone treatments. She dresses as a girl and calls herself Vanessa—except in Enrique's presence. Somehow Angela and Vanessa expect to keep this secret in an urban neighborhood that functions like a small town. Everybody knows everybody else's business.
Other subplots abound. Angela is keeping her own secrets from her husband. Parole is a challenge for Enrique, a man with serious anger management issues. Vanessa is feeling the pangs of young love with implications for her self-esteem, as Chris (Tyrone Brown), the boy she's crushing on is only willing to see her in secret and only so long as he doesn't have to confront the reality of her transgendered status.
Green has a good ear for dialogue and he wonderfully captures the working-class urban milieu and rhythms of city life. It is clear that he cares deeply about his subject and the difficulties transgender youth face within families and communities, but his writing is not up to the task he's set for himself. The melodrama is tiresome, overwrought and clichéd.
The characters are all stereotypical, none more so than Enrique. Morales is tremendous as he manages to transcend the limits of his character, imbuing the bitter, confused, enraged Enrique with heart and soul. That Enrique is not a one-dimensional monster is thanks to Morales, an actor who deserves a better movie.
Distributor: Motion Film Group
Cast: Esai Morales, Judy Reyes, Harmony Santana, Miriam Colon, Vincent Laresca, Franky G., Isiah Whitlock Jr., Tyrone Brown
Director: Rashaad Ernesto Green
Screenwriter: Rashaad Ernesto Green
Producer: Ron Simons, Michelle-Anne M. Small
Genre: Comedy, Thriller
Rating: R for strong sexual content, language and some violence
Runtime: 88 min.
Release Date: July 29