Film Review: Gun Hill Road

Compelling and insightful drama about a Latino New Yorker who returns home from prison and learns that his teenage son is transitioning to female. No melodrama and no clichés, just very real people in a very real situation, told with an immediacy
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After serving several years for armed robbery, Enrique Rodriguez (Esai Morales) is released from prison. His assurances that he’s going to stay out of trouble and not get sent back to prison are sincere, but he also has a violent streak that can be heedless of consequences: Shortly before his release, he mars his record as a model prisoner by stabbing another con who did him wrong.

Returning to his family on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, Enrique slowly realizes just how much they’ve changed. His wife Angela (Judy Reyes) has been carrying on an affair with another man, Hector (Vincent Laresca). Rising to the occasion, he tells Angela that he didn’t expect her to be faithful while he was away, but now that he’s back, it has to stop. Enrique’s pride is still wounded, however, and he robs Hector at gunpoint, taking his cash and watch. The old way of life also flares up when he spots the hated con he had attacked, now also released. When Enrique catches up with him, he beats him savagely.

Although unaware of these episodes, Enrique’s teenage son Michael (Harmony Santana) is distant and unresponsive with his father, and invariably is off with his friends. Michael’s restrained behavior and limited contact with his father at first hides the truth that he is female-identified and has already begun going out as Vanessa, performing her poetry and encountering her first lover. The little that Enrique does see, however, causes him to force Michael into the bathroom and shear his hair short. He later takes the boy to a prostitute, hoping to make a man of him, but after this experience the humiliated Michael starts taking female hormones and receiving silicone injections. He also stops going home and stays instead with Hector.

When a conversation with Michael’s teacher reveals to Enrique that his son has been wearing makeup and using the girl’s bathroom, he returns home in a fury and goes through Michael’s room until he discovers the boy’s stash of female clothes. But when Michael fails to return home, both he and Angela become frantic. She sends Enrique out to find him, and eventually he discovers where Michael is staying. Enrique skips a meeting with his parole officer and goes instead to Hector’s, where he asks Michael to come home, saying that he will let Michael make his own decisions. The next day Michael does return home, but before Enrique can see him, he is arrested just outside their apartment building, as Michael watches.

First-time writer-director Rashaad Ernesto Green uses his Bronx locations expertly, bringing realism to a story that might seem extreme to some. Wisely, that extremity is muted: There are no great speeches, wild emotional displays or epic confrontations in this film. The truth about people comes out in what is left unsaid and undone, in the conversations and confrontations that are avoided.

For that m.o. to work, the casting has to be impeccable, and in fact everyone is right on the money in Gun Hill Road. Morales completely inhabits the role of Enrique and makes real this man’s painful attempts to be something more than what he’s always been. Matching him every step of the way is Reyes. Best known for her comic skills on the TV series “Scrubs,” she here gets a chance to stretch, and is outstanding as the downtrodden but resilient and loving Angela. One simple scene, in which she tries to style Michael’s now shortened hair and reassures him that he’s beautiful, makes plain the depth of her understanding and love for her child.

Newcomer Santana is sensational as Michael/Vanessa. A young transsexual then at the beginning of her transition, she is perfectly cast in this difficult role and gives an easy and natural performance alongside such pros as Morales and Reyes. Green’s script is especially insightful in depicting the transsexual experience and provides real insight into Michael’s need to be Vanessa. That sympathetic and knowing characterization will go a long way in bringing greater understanding of transgender people—just one more virtue of this intelligent and moving film.
The Hollywood Reporter