by Richard von Busack
It would be hard to make a movie in San Francisco’s Mission District that wasn’t good to look at, but director Peter Bratt aims at something holier than that. La Mission is a simple story of a rough-hewn Che (Benjamin Bratt). He’s a Muni conductor, a hobby mechanic and an ex-con, single-parenting his son, Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez). What he doesn’t know is that Jesse has a secret life—and a boyfriend who lives in St. Francis Wood.
Che’s outright rage at his son’s sexuality is tempered by the attentions of his lovely new neighbor Lena (Erika Alexander). This women’s-shelter counselor is a newcomer to the Mission, but she’s adept with the really old-time religion. Lena keeps an altar to Kali, whom she calls “The Virgin Mary ... with teeth.”
Director Peter Bratt and star Benjamin Bratt have been San Franciscans and movie fans all their lives. In an interview, Benjamin said that his brother, Peter, had created “a metaphorical low-rider cruise” through the Mission to match Che’s arc. “What happens sets him on a spiritual journey, to get in touch with the divine feminine principle,” added Peter Bratt.
Benjamin Bratt commented, “Cultural pride and sensitivity don’t necessarily mean open-mindedness to sexual orientation. We tried to make Che one of those heroes we have come to revere in cinema, compelling and attractive in that kick-ass way of taking care of business, what really makes him tick? What we discover is that for Che it’s love: not just for his son but for his community.” The problems of making La Mission: first, a small ($2.5 million) budget; second, a film industry that believed that releasing Brokeback Mountain meant never having to deal with gay-hatred ever again.
“Then came Prop. 8,” Peter Bratt said. “Latinos and other minorities turned out to vote against gay marriage in record numbers. When we started working on this film, with homeboys and lowriders alike, we ran into homophobia. One brother we were working with, a man who paints low riders, ... we heard him talking to his 17-year-old son: ‘They’re using your car, Dad. What is this movie about?’ ‘It’s about what I would do to you if I ever found out you were gay.’” But Peter Bratt insisted, “Even that gentleman who spoke those words saw the film. A light went on. His tolerance level has been transformed.”
Any positive representation of Aztlan has to be applauded; the scenes of highly polished lowriders gliding through the Mission make their own statement of beauty and pride. Bratt is the definition of movie-star gravity: a man doing nothing but thinking about stuff and making it look interesting. The film, then, is a celebration of San Francisco.
Problem is, San Francisco may be San Francisco, but it is still a city. So some hard-to-credit idealization is here amid the more real, street-level violence. La Mission is a kind of overexemplified view of San Francisco as a city of healing and refuge: a vision of a place where everyone is wounded, and almost everyone heals each other.