You can take the man out of the Mission, but you can’t take the Mission out of the man,” one of lead-character Che’s (Benjamin Bratt) homeboys in La Mission says during a low-rider jaunt through the North Beach district of San Francisco after Che expresses concern about his teenage son, Jesse ( Jeremy Ray Valdez), who is soon leaving for UCLA. A recovering alcoholic and ex-con, Che wants the best for his son but worries that the young Mission High senior will disown his father and his father’s friends’ lifestyle and traditions once he moves to Los Angeles.
La Mission takes a sharp and emotional turn when tough-guy Che discovers that his son’s excuses for repeatedly not showing up to hang out with his father’s buddies (the “Mission Boyz”) are lies. In truth, Jesse is sleeping with an upper-class white guy and even dancing shirtless at a gay club in the Castro district, which is just a few blocks from the Mission but might as well be on Mars.
A confused Che beats and disowns his son, later accepting Jesse’s homosexuality as an abberation on the condition that he never mentions it again. Even after Jesse is shot and critically wounded by a homophobic young Mission thug, Che still violently asks his son to make a choice between an openly gay life and a life without a father.
Prior to a few days ago, the 2000 film-version of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys was the only major motion picture I’d watched that was not only filmed in a city, but a neighborhood where I’ve lived. Seeing Michael Douglas booze it up in on-screen in Pittsburgh, where I grew up, to the sounds of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen was cool, but checking out the jarring social and cultural flash of La Mission — shot in San Francisco’s culturally rich Mission
District, where I lived from 2002 to 2008 — was far more rewarding.
La Mission wasn’t based on an acclaimed novel, but the film’s heartfelt drama and realistic depiction of a gritty, harsh-reality-filled neighborhood are seriously penetrating on a level that the majority of recent urban-set movies don’t reach. Directed by Peter Bratt and starring his brother Benjamin, La Mission — alternately funny, sad, thought-provoking and romantic — poignantly touches on sociological and economical subjects while utilizing San Francisco as a colorful backdrop.
For Mission District veterans, La Mission is at least partially a big-screen replay of phenomena we’ve seen first-hand — gentrification, hate crimes and battles over rising rents, just to name a few. But the Bratt brothers’ competent expression of such serious, and far too common, stories is remarkable. It’s just hard to get over how much the film makes a Mission vet miss the vibrant neighborhood’s beautiful parks and peerless taquerías. Sorry, Juanita’s and Rincón del Sol — it’s not you, it’s me.