Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Road Less Traveled


Gun Hill Road, the new Bronx-based family saga directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green both breaks new ground and gets stuck in some very old muck as well. Its 'road less traveled' is casting the role of a young trans Latina using *gasp* an actual young trans Latina, Harmony Santana. And she's in no way presented as a cartoon character, sexworker or drag queen. Green met Ms. Santana while she was volunteering at an information booth at a community event, which led to her audition and her very real triumph in the role of the family's sensitive son Michael who increasingly IDs as Vanessa. Her parents are played by veterans Esai Morales who played ex-convict dad Enrique (Morales goes all the way back as the hunky, troubled brother in 'La Bamba') and sympathetic mom Angela, Judy Reyes (well known both on TV in 'Scrubs,' numerous cop shows and as a theater actress).

Director Rashaad Ernesto Green attend the 2011 Outfest Opening Night Gala of "Gun Hill Road" at the Orpheum Theatre on July 7, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.
Director Green... an NYU film
school grad and Spike Lee

The film begins with dad still in prison and being put in solitary for an attack on another prisoner (who, of course, reappears later in the film). While dad is in the hole, mom Angela and Michael live in their Gun Hill Road apartment while mom works and is involved with another more accepting and together guy in her husband's absence. We skip to a few years forward and Enrique is getting out of the slammer and being warned by his parole officer to "keep his nose clean" (yes, some of the dialogue does reach this level of cliche).  Green pretty much makes it clear from the get go that Enrique's chances of being back in prison are huge.

Vanessa trying to be born

Enrique comes home to find his only child isn't the baseball-loving scamp he once was. His assumption is that Michael is now a fairy and his time being raised by mom made him that way. Almost instantly, it's clear Enrique and Michael are not going to click (although, according to the film's timeline, they suggest Enrique was only in prison for 3 years, yet the script makes it sound as if he never grew up with his bio dad). Also, how many very feminine boys suddenly become that way in a 3-year period? Not too believable. I've never known a femme boy (much less a femme trans girl) who didn't very obviously read that way from a young age.

Harmony Santana... a star turn but
still stuck in youth housing.

The family drama happens when Enrique not only can't accept his offspring for who they are, but messes up on his kitchen job, and ends up robbing and attacking Angela's 'jail-time' boyfriend who she still loves. The drama comes to a head when Michael, now often presenting as Vanessa, goes out into the world doing slam poetry performance, getting involved with a creepy down-low homey from the hood (who gives her money to get street-bought hormone shots and her butt injected with silicone) but is only in it for the sex. Dad finds out about his daughter and, in a horrific and violent scene, forces her to cut her hair and goes deeper and deeper into alienating all the people he loves. What does work in Gun Hill Road is the painful emotional dynamic between those in the family who are capable of love and acceptance towards a trans child and those whose love of their child can't transcend their own profound insecurities.

Momi and Papi... not clicking
but why are they still together?

Which is also kind of where the story falls apart. Angela, who seems like a not-terribly traditional and quite independent woman with a sister and mom as a close support system, continues to want to be together with her jaybird husband no matter how intolerable he is. She knows he's involved with robberies despite being on parole, yet continues to allow him in her bed. Why? She already has the love of another man who is more responsible than Enrique, and more accepting of her son, has gotten by financially for the years her husband was in the clink. Why would she want him back to create almost instant chaos with her child, especially when she's still in love with another man? The logic doesn't click and, yes, while people's motives and needs are complex, for this character as written in Gun Hill Road, the motivation seems jumbled. The script seems to have a somewhat limited grasp on the female characters and gets stuck in the "I'm standing by my man no matter what" trope without taking into account her maturity, situation and self-reliance.

A further sub-plot involves Enrique's revenge against the prisoner who supposedly raped him in prison. Not only does it seem gratuitously violent, but feels like a poorly-thought-through explanation of his homo/trans phobia—as if the director is afraid to say his attitudes don't just don't happen without extreme provocation?? He grew up in a traditional, Catholic, Latino, old country section of the Bronx— does he really need to be raped to 'explain' why he has the attitudes he does? It becomes a too-pat Freudian plot construction rather than compelling drama. Without giving away too much of the plot, Enrique does attempt to come to peace with who Michael is (although the same can't be said of Vanessa).

As Vanessa (and Michael), Harmony Santana adds a depth and feeling to the role that I can pretty much be certain would not be there had a non-trans actress (much less actor) been cast. She very quickly becomes the center of the film and, sometimes, you wish the rest of the ex-con story would fall away so it could focus on her. I did, however, have some qualms about the character as written. She's portrayed as being extremely passive and lacking some of the fight and fire I've seen in trans women who've transitioned young from environments such as this. Other than her silicone pumper, she never really connects with other trans Latinas in the Bronx or Harlem and stays very much stuck in the world of gay boys. As so often happens in films about trans women directed by gay men, they have a tendency to project their own issues as gay teens onto stories of young trans women and it reads false. By the end of the film, Vanessa is pretty much gone (even though the father is mostly out of her life) and she is back living as Michael. Yes, people do de-transition or have periods of gender-fluidity even if they eventually transition, but I didn't believe it with this character. She was already having a sex life very specifically as woman and that's not something you give up easily. Again, I felt the director's own youth was encroaching on Vanessa's story and making it something which seemed fake.

Reyes, Morales and Santana.

Is Gun Hill Road worth seeing? Yes, for the performances which are universally excellent. Though much of Morales' dialog seemed hackneyed and stiff he's still a very charismatic performer and Reyes is always moving. I also thought the film portrayed Vanessa's sad down-low relationship quite well... where inexperienced trans women become so desperate for confirmation of their womenhood they will settle for amazingly little from their 'boyfriends.' Ouch!

But some of the depiction of Bronx reminded me too much of how 'Hill Street Blues' used to present the 'gritty-real' New York... in other words—High School of the Performing Arts meets New York Shakespeare Festival actors making some dime playing "street." Without Santana the film would go nowhere. With her participation, she brings some of her own reality as a transitioning teen to the role—it's hard not to feel love and protectiveness for her character(s). Even with all the great reviews for her performance and being feted at Sundance, she's still living in trans/queer youth housing and seems to have been very mostly rejected by her family. Sadly, that's a gritty and heartbreaking reality no film about trans youth can ever hope to match.


  1. True enough...will definitely see it when it hits town.

  2. Morales had a part in the series "American Family", in which he plays a similar role but more sympathetically. I never much liked him, before I saw him in American Family, but his role in the series made me a convert. You'd think the Latino emphasis on strong family ties would be worked into the story, and give him a chance to work through "father of a trans-girl" with some reality. But as you point out, in real life, we rarely get good results, just experience.

  3. @Otto... I thought he was a little less of a f*ck up on that show than he is in Gun Hill Road. I just wish they'd gone deeper on his and his daughter's relationship and not gotten lost into all the ex-con/prison attack stuff which was more of a distraction.

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