“Gun Hill Road,” which kicked Outfest 2011's Opening Night Gala on Friday, is a sophisticated and intimate twist on a father-son drama.
Set in the Bronx, Rashaad Ernesto Green’s first feature film follows Enrique (Esai Morales), a macho ex-inmate returning home from a 3-year prison sentence to find the domestic power he once enjoyed slowly leaving his grasp.
His wife, Angela (Judy Reyes), has been sleeping with someone else in his absence, and it becomes increasingly hard to ignore that his son, Michael (Harmony Santana), is transitioning into Vanessa, a woman.
Newcomer Santana’s performance is nothing if not authentic. A transexual female on-screen and in real life, Santana’s most affective moments are the unspoken ones.
We see the insecure, vulnerable gestures she makes when negotiating sex with her first boyfriend, the painful injections and body-changing pills, moments spent admiring her biological female peers, and the dangerous interactions with her father in which she is pushed to engage in baseball and other masculine activities that just don’t fit.
We are taken into Vanessa’s pre-date routine and the lengths she must go to present herself as she feels inside. Her life parallels her father’s as he struggles under the watchful eye of his parole officer and resist a return to crime.
At the moments when Enrique feels most out of control and most distant from the life he once had, he lashes out the hardest. At one point he cuts Vanessa’s hair when he discovers the way she styles it for a night out.
The climax of the film comes when Enrique takes Vanessa to a modern-day brothel to engage with a woman — the violation forces her to run away from home. Enrique, pushed by his wife (Judy Reyes, in a moving performance), must find his daughter and begin to relinquish the control he once had over her.
These scenes especially will make audiences cringe, and their hearts pound.
“Gun Hill Road” is a moving portrayal of transition, and how gender, sexuality, race, and culture intermesh and become embodied in one family. Enrique, Angela, and Vanessa each struggle to express their desires within the confines of community and society.
The film premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and will open in Los Angeles and New York on August 5.