When Peter and Benjamin Bratt were growing up in San Francisco, the city's Mission District was the soul of their compact universe.
It was where their mother, a single parent, worked as a registered nurse and political organizer. It was where the boys and their siblings went to school and played in recreation centers. Named for the Spanish colonial Mission Dolores, it was a neighborhood of lowriders, Peruvian flute players, Native American and Latino activists, omnipresent street theater and vibrant murals that related the local history like "Aztec glyphs," Peter says. The Mission (or La Misión, in the local Latino vernacular) served as the pulsating, ethnically piebald urban backdrop for teen rites of passage, tests of manhood, the "first kiss, the first dance."
Not surprisingly, for years afterward the brothers dreamed of making a movie there together.
"We always wanted to tell a story in our backyard, in our hometown," says Peter, who still lives in San Francisco. "When you go see a Spike Lee film, 'Do the Right Thing,' now we can say, 'Brooklyn,' or 'Queens,' or 'the Bronx,' [and] in South America or France, people know where those neighborhoods are. And we've always said, you know, La Misión is as vibrant creatively, culturally as Harlem."
But the right project didn't come along until Peter, a director and screenwriter, came up with the idea for "La Mission," starring his younger brother Benjamin, known for his award-winning role as Det. Rey Curtis on NBC's "Law & Order" as well as "Piñero," "Traffic" and other films.
The privately financed movie, which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and opened in L.A. theaters Friday, makes the Mission a virtual character in its tale of a proud, culturally old-school, macho Latino single father named Che Rivera (Benjamin Bratt) whose world is rocked to its foundations when his son Jes (Jeremy Ray Valdez), a bright UCLA scholarship student, comes out of the closet. The film also stars Erika Alexander as Che's self-possessed, astute neighbor Elena, and Jesse Borrego and Talisa Soto Bratt, Benjamin Bratt's wife.
Sensitively told but unflinching in its determined frankness about several prickly, taboo topics, "La Mission" delves into the emotional thickets of homophobia, ethnic identity, domestic as well as street violence, and generational conflict. Above all, through Valdez's breakout performance in his theatrical film debut, it addresses the potentially difficult passage, en route to self-fulfillment, of a young, gay person belonging to a historically marginalized demographic group.
But "La Mission" also can be read as the brothers' mash note to a community and a way of living.
"For all the heavy themes that the film focuses on, equally important to us was the effort to capture the exuberance and the real passion for life that lives in the Mission, in all its various forms," says Benjamin, an L.A. transplant. "And so right alongside the heartache within the film, we also want you to find the humor, as the characters do. And I don't know if that's a uniquely Latino experience or not, but we tend to be a melodramatic culture."
"That goes hand in hand with the pain," chimes in Peter, whose previous feature film, "Follow Me Home" (1996), tracked five disparate individuals' arduous odysseys across the U.S.
"There's a fatalism that exists," Benjamin agrees. "But underlying that fatalism is always, always a willingness to laugh at your state of being, and to have a good time, even in the face of it. And so we wanted to capture that too."
Peter says that one of the film's central themes, the uneasiness (if not outright hostility) of a Chicano male toward his son's homosexuality, is "a complex thing" and "something that as a sociologist you would have a field day writing your dissertation on."
Apart from the obvious reference to its one-of-a-kind locale, the film's title also alludes to the often muddled mission of becoming a grown man. For the Bratts, that mission was complicated by the absence of their own father throughout much of their lives. Although the character of Che was primarily inspired by a longtime Bay Area friend, the brothers realized after shooting the film that Che also was more than passing similar to their old man "in his rigidity, in his disallowance of anyone else's perspective," Benjamin says.
At the same time, Benjamin continues, like Che, "our father is passionately and deeply sensitive and loving, but I think like the character has sometimes difficulty expressing it." The sons haven't talked with their papa in 25 years.
What partially eased those bittersweet revelations during the making of the film, the brothers suggest, is their own experiences of fatherhood.
"Neither of us, whether Peter as the author and director or myself as an actor, could've pulled this off were we not fathers in real life," Benjamin says. "There's something that transforms you, deep within, when you raise a child."
The hair-trigger relationships between father and son (or their surrogates), as well as between brothers, pervaded the movie. Benjamin says that Peter has a natural leadership style that's "fascinating to watch, because he does it through absolute humility. Me, I'm a yeller. I vent my passion. Peter, he's more stealth."
The brothers always have been close, constantly socializing and not infrequently working together. Still, mix together their temperamental differences with two strong creative visions and the pressures of co-producing an independent film, and sparks will fly.
"It wasn't all peace, love and Brussels sprouts, man," Benjamin says. "Because we know each other so well and we know each other's strengths and weaknesses, it's like there's a switchboard and I know what button to push to get a certain reaction from him, and likewise he for me. "
Inevitably, the brothers say, laughing, the on-set verbal smack-downs would be followed, five minutes later, by hugs and sniffly protestations of, "I love you too, bro!"
Valdez confirms that the on-set atmosphere could get charged with emotion, especially in the scenes where Che and Jes come to blows. "On those days, Benjamin and I were locked down, not talking to each other," he says. "Benjamin, he's a seriously intense dude. Those scenes where's he's hitting me, he's really hitting me."
The greatest tussle, however, may have been trying to get Hollywood financing for the project. As an Emmy-nominated veteran of television and more than 25 films, Benjamin says, he thought he had "enough relationships to get a compelling story like this told, fairly straight-forwardly."
"But what we were met with was, one, 'It's an issue that's already been dealt with, the coming-out story of the son.' What they meant by that was, it's an issue that's already been dealt within the dominant culture."
With the release of "La Mission," that new story can be added to the cultural annals of the city of Dirty Harry and Harvey Milk, and now of Che and Jes Rivera, and of the brothers Bratt.