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Movie Review

Gun Hill Road

A tale of trying times after serving time: Ex-con returns to a changed family in ‘Gun Hill Road’

Enrique (Esai Morales) experiences a kind of post-traumatic stress after returning to his Bronx home following a prison term. Enrique (Esai Morales) experiences a kind of post-traumatic stress after returning to his Bronx home following a prison term. (Mykwain Gainey / Motion Film Group)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / September 16, 2011

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In “Gun Hill Road,’’ Enrique (Esai Morales) returns from three years in prison to a family he no longer recognizes. His wife, Angela (Judy Reyes), has been dating another man, and his 17-year-old son, Michael (Harmony Santana), is undergoing treatments to become a woman. This is the first movie to make me equate coming home from prison with coming home from war. That might have been the appeal of the title, which shares its name with a boulevard in the Bronx, where the movie is set.

No one understands what Enrique’s seen and done, what happened to him in there. No one asks. The writer and director, Rashaad Ernesto Green, doesn’t specify, but he trusts us to read between the lines of Enrique’s rage and confusion. His wife and son, in moving on together without him, have unwittingly conspired against his masculinity. Under regular circumstances, Michael’s transformation into a gawky Bronx beauty named Vanessa probably would have set him off. But here it seems to trigger a kind of post-traumatic stress. He doesn’t always see his son. He sees the low points of the last three years, a few of which must have involved the beefy cholo we see him shank in the opening scene. Maybe that’s why when he makes love to Angela he can’t bring himself to kiss her. Maybe it’s his awareness that she dated someone else.

The movie, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, feels like it’s been workshopped, from its string of coincidences to its tidy downbeat conclusion in which Green stabs at irony with a dull knife. Unlike too many young, first-time directors, he’s not interested in shoehorning his ideas into other movies’ formulas. Green also has a sure way with both good actors and great personalities. He wants to show us natural humanness and emotional inner life, and it shouldn’t take him long to figure out how to keep doing that without letting the seams of his screenwriting show.

Green also manages to make Michael an original character. At home and in school, he deepens his voice, but Santana has a soft, warm face. He’s not playing either gender. He’s combined aspects of both in a way that makes the character genderless and true. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, Vanessa basically would have sung and shimmied in a heavily crimped pop group like Exposé, the Cover Girls, or Sweet Sensation. Michael and his friends - some effeminate boys and masculine girls - camp it up around the neighborhood and the other boroughs. They’re the kids you pass on the street or see on the subway entertaining each other (and sometimes you) with their outrageousness.

Having Vanessa read her poetry at some New York club’s open-mike night is an unfortunate necessity since it allows her and Michael to articulate feelings they’d never express to Enrique. But those spoken-word performances win Vanessa the attention of a young man (Tyrone Brown) who doesn’t seem too terribly bothered by her also being Michael. This guy has the baseball cap and swagger of a member of some hip-hop mogul’s entourage. He and Vanessa have a brief, exploratory affair that, for the movies, is amazing for the casualness with which it puts a Hispanic transsexual in a black male’s bed. In the world, that’s not unheard of. On screen, you could probably count them all on one of Waylon Smithers’s hands.

As much as “Gun Hill Road’’ is devoted to Enrique’s struggles with his son, it’s careful to show us Michael’s certainty about himself. The movie gets at a generational shift that’s been underway in American sexuality, where the kids who know they’re not straight don’t see the point in hiding it. The Rickys from “My So-Called Life’’ and the Kurts from “Glee’’ are matters of fact in a lot of schools. Green isn’t suggesting that being as out as Michael is easy, but what’s the alternative? As much as no one knows what Enrique’s been through, Enrique is missing an opportunity to understand his son. Michael could tell him he’s felt locked up, too.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.

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GUN HILL ROAD

Written and directed by: Rashaad Ernesto Green

Starring: Esai Morales, Harmony Santana, Tyrone Brown, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Judy Reyes

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 88 minutes

R (strong sexual content, language, and some grisly prison violence)

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