DVD Review - Gun Hill Road

Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and as Outstanding Film at the 2012 GLAAD Media Awards, this picture is the NYU thesis film and feature directorial debut of Rashaad Ernesto Green. It basically covers the same ground and has a very similar premise to Peter Bratt's La Mission (2009). That ground is the conservative views of a hardened, street-smart, Hispanic male of a certain age having to accept that his son is gay. Green's movie takes it a step further and makes the child in question not simply gay, but transsexual.

Nominated for an ALMA Award, a Gotham Award and a Spirit Award, Harmony Santana stars as Michael Rodriguez, a teenage transsexual in New York. Michael is a boy, but his behavior is very feminized. He's taking hormones to change his body chemistry, and Santana is actually transsexual in real life, so it's very authentic and compelling when Green, almost in documentary fashion, does a scene that depicts Michael going from looking like a boy to looking like a girl, and when Michael does look like a girl, he doesn't just look like one. He is a girl, a very convincing one. As such, he calls himself Vanessa.

Esai Morales stars as Enrique Rodriguez, the father who comes home after three years. Enrique returns following a stint in prison. He walks into the predominantly Latino community in the Bronx. Before his release, it's obvious he values his family. He loves them, but it's also obvious that he is a religious man.

Green hints that Enrique possibly had a homosexual encounter while in prison, which makes him react quite violently. Michael is perhaps anxious of this kind of reaction, so he knows to hide the fact that he becomes Vanessa and goes to bars to pick up guys. Green isn't obvious about what happened to Enrique, but he adds subtle touches, which are aided by Morales' performance. One moment where Enrique can't look at his wife Angie during sex is an indication.

Green juggles two stories at once that constantly collide. The first is the effect that the loss of a Latino man to the prison system would have on that man's family and him. At the same time, Green also juggles the story of a boy coming into his or rather her own sexuality. The drama and tension the two have alone and together are incredible, as Green juggles and throws them up and into each other.

There are some obvious conflicts that Green sets into motion like a scene involving sports, but he also has some surprising ones. For example, a hair-cutting scene is so impactful and is so much of a gut punch that I had to rewind the DVD and watch it again, as tears started to fill my eyes. Through a character named Chris whom Vanessa dates, we see a kind of homophobia that we rarely see that's tolerant in bizarre, psychosexual ways.

The ending, the very final scene in fact, is such a great moment that it's heartbreaking. Green proves that he has a very humanist hand that understands his characters and allows us to understand them intimately. Even Michael's mother Angie, played by Judy Reyes, is given such room and breath for us to feel who she is fully, even in this brief movie.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for strong sexual content, language and some violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 26 mins.


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