It’s been eleven years since Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her performance in the film BOYS DON’T CRY (1999).Much has changed for the Gay, Lesbian and Transgender community since that historic film. In the last decade there has been more acceptance of this community and some states have even embraced marriage for gay couples. Yes, there is still much more to be accomplished and film is a very useful tool to help people understand the day to day struggles of people that are Gay, Lesbian and Transgender. The most successful independent film of the year GUN HILL ROAD, takes on this subject, telling the story of just one transgender youth, his relationship with his newly released convict father, both living in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in the Bronx.
Enrique (Esai Morales) is returning home after a three year stint in prison. He is what society would call a career criminal. During his three year incarceration his life was in perpetual survival mode, while life outside the prison walls continued without him. His wife Angela (Judy Reyes) of seventeen years has begun a relationship with a kinder man and his son Michael (Harmony Santana) has started to embrace his sexuality and has started to transition into his real identity, Vanessa. All of these changes were kept from Enrique as he tries to reestablish himself into a normal home life. He starts to discover the new life his family has led without him. The most difficulties arise when Enrique finds that his son is not at all the young man he remembered. Enrique, unable to accept his son’s new identity reacts in ways that degrade his son’s self-esteem. It’s evident he loves his son, but it is uncertain if he just loves the idea of a son, or can truly embrace the child that has become something unexpected.
This film by first time Writer/Director Rashaad Ernest Green does an excellent job of telling this universal story within the Puerto-Rican American subculture in the Bronx. It has a flavor of its own, much like the early films of Spike Lee and his depictions of the African –American community. Esai Morales (La Bamba, Bad Boys, and NYPD Blue) inhabits the character of Enrique with a sense of honesty that enables the moviegoer to see past the macho persona and see his inner struggles to find a way to love his son while still maintaining his own personal identity. The biggest star of the film is Harmony Santana, a new-comer to the screen and a self-proclaimed transgender youth. Harmony captures the innocence of youth along with his battles to be the person she is. Supporting the father/son relationship is Judy Reyes as Angela (Scrubs). The love she has for her child is the love that every child hopes for in a mother.
Overall, GUN HILL ROAD is a very good film with a subject matter that is definitely of its time. All the performances are well-executed, and the setting in a Latino neighborhood adds an extra zest to the film’s originality. This film is recommended for anyone that has a family member that is misunderstood and anyone that may want to know more about this segment of society that is usually overlooked. Keeping this film from really reaching the awards arena may be its overextended sexually explicit scenes. These scenes are not required for the character of Michael/Vanessa to be understood, and it may put off the mainstream moviegoer. The ending of BOYS DON’T CRY was tragic and very common for its time. GUN HILL ROAD hints at a happier ending for Michael/Vanessa, which brings the possibility of a brighter future for all youths yearning to be accepted.
Gun Hill Road is Rated R for strong sexual content, language and some violence.
Whatever your movie choice this week, please remember your movie theater etiquette: silence your cell phones & no texting please, don’t talk during the film and remove your children if they become a distraction to other audience members. Don’t forget that laughing, crying and cheering are always approved behavior and even encouraged.
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-Kay Shackleton is a film historian with special focus on Silent Films, see her work on SilentHollywood.com