QFest Film Review: Gun Hill Road

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

The motivations and emotional states that govern human behavior are complicated, and all too often movies ignore this complexity and instead paint film stories by numbers, using broad strokes and stock characters to depict the world we live in. Very seldom is it that a film truly holds a mirror up to nature and shows us the actual reality of our lived experience, in which no problem comes with a tidy solution, and no deus ex machina appears to magic away the bad things. Gun Hill Road, however, brings a unflinching, rare brand of honesty to the screen.

Enrique (Esai Morales) has just been released from prison, but his problems are not over yet. He must report to his parole officer each week, hold down a steady job, and stay out of trouble with the cops. That’s standard for ex-cons. For Enrique, though, the challenges don’t end there. He must also re-ignite his romantic relationship with his wife (Judy Reyes) and come to terms with his teenage son’s emerging transgendered identity.

That son, Michael (Harmony Santana), maintains a male identity around the house, tucking long curly hair under a baseball cap and hiding a female wardrobe in a trunk. When it’s possible to slip away, Michael emerges as Vanessa to go out with her friends. She performs slam poetry and tries to navigate the world of dating as a trans woman. She’s upfront about her pre-operative status with a potential suitor who takes the news as a small shock but then asks some extremely private questions about what she’s willing to do in the bedroom. The fraught courtship in which she engages afterward is one that should be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s been a teenager, as her developing sense of self battles it out with her insecurities and that all-encompassing desire to simply be loved. Harmony Santana takes on the role with a keen vulnerability, navigating the minefield of her particular teenage life with equal parts youthful confidence and uncertainty.

Although Michael/Vanessa’s mother accepts and loves her child without condition, Enrique doesn’t know how to deal with his son’s trans identity other than to condemn it entirely. However, there is never a doubt that Enrique loves his child. Gun Hill Road writer/director Rashaad Ernesto Green doesn’t give us an easy story about a 100% evil dad who hates his queer kid and is therefore easy for us to hate too. Instead, Green paints a layered portrait of a troubled adult who has no context for the situation he’s in, and clearly has no idea what course of action to take. The scenes between father and child reflect a familial love that is just as deep as the rift between them.

Angela (Judy Reyes), the wife and mother of the family, tries to keep the family together, although just like anyone else, she has her own weaknesses. She is a hard-working, devoted, but weary woman who does her best to support her husband and only child, and addresses her own wants within the limited scope of what’s available.

So it goes with the story. Imperfect people try to make the best of what they have. It’s not always pretty, and it doesn’t necessarily work out they way people would like. There are no Hollywood smoke and mirrors in this Bronx tale, but using the available resources, Vanessa is clearly determined to face the world, as it is, on her terms.

Gun Hill Road will be opening theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on August 5th. You can help to bring it to Philadelphia by going to the film’s website and filling out a request form. 

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