Well, the granddaddy of the American film festivals opened last night, the 52nd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival. I've only been to opening night twice (this year and last year), but stepping into the Castro last night, I could immediately tell the energy was much higher, the crowd was much more excited this year. Obviously having a local film opening the fest added something.
Festival director Graham Leggat got up and started going through the obligatory thanking of the sponsors (we love them all, especially the booze sponsors), and then started talking about an interesting development which I didn't know about (apparently because I wasn't paying attention last August). Last year, the San Francisco Film Society, which presents SFIFF every year, took over much of the work of the Film Arts Foundation, and is now giving more support in terms of classes and (some) financing to local filmmakers. Graham had a great analogy where previously SFFS was a florist, picking the best film flowers they could find and presenting them in the bouquet that is SFIFF. Now they've added the role of nursery, cultivating more flowers from the local seeds. And that really makes the opening night film perfect not just for the festival but for the Film Society's new, increased local role.
So on to the film, LA MISSION, which takes place in San Francisco's Mission district, is directed by Peter Bratt, who grew up in the Mission, and stars his brother Benjamin Bratt. Peter and Benjamin ("Los Hermanos") got up and said a few words, then invited a Mission elder on stage to say a few words and give the event a traditional blessing, complete with costumed drummers, incense, etc. Now that was an introduction!
Okay, on to the movie itself. Benjamin Bratt stars as Che Rivera, a Mission local, a bus driver, a father, and a guy with a bit of a violent past (including some jail time). He's cleaned himself up, and is a solid citizen. He buys groceries for his elderly neighbor. He stays sober (with a little help from his AA sponsor). His only vice, if you can even call it that, is his lowrider and the crew he cruises with every Friday night (it's not about getting anywhere, it's just about taking it low and slow). And he's got a good son, a straight-A student Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez) who's finishing up high school and will be starting college at UCLA in the fall. So he's a tough guy, living in a tough neighborhood, but he's trying hard to do right, and for the most part his life is pretty good now. And then he learns that Jesse is gay. Here's an interesting thing about San Francisco--from the outside it looks like a big pile of queers and queer-loving liberals, but from the inside there are a multitude of cultures, and sometimes those clash. The Mission and the Castro are literally neighbors, but that doesn't mean there's no homophobia in the Mission. Che is a homophobe, and with his struggles with violence, his first impulse is to beat up Jesse and kick him out of the house. And of course now Jesse is out to the whole neighborhood, which leads to bullying at school. But the story doesn't end there. Che doesn't stop loving his son. He's conflicted--he wants to have a relationship with him, but he doesn't want to know about the gay stuff (or rather, he wants to believe it's not happening). Benjamin Bratt does an excellent job of being more than just the homophobic father stereotype, but also doesn't pull any punches. There's a key line in the movie when Che tells Jesse he must come back home because "I'm all you got!" It's immediately and painfully clear that Che has that backwards--Jesse has his life, his future at UCLA, his boyfriend. All Che has is his son, and he's losing him. A powerful, touching movie that skirts up alongside possible cliches, but then keeps his absolutely real. Most definitely.
Well then it was a short walk from the Castro to the Mission for the after party at Bruno's. A few drinks, a few tasty treats (lesson of the night: Bacon Bon Bons are awesome). And true to the local flavor, the party was actually more crowded when I left to catch the BART home (~11:30) than when I got there. I love the Mission, and I love LA MISSION. What a way to start the festival.