Movie Review: ‘Gun Hill Road’

Published by Clay Cane on Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 12:00 am.

(Photo: Simon Says Entertainment)

Summary: A male to female transgender teen, Michael (Harmony Santana) is struggling with her family and community in Bronx, New York. Her father (Esai Morales), recently out of prison, is unhappy with his son’s gender identity and is wrestling with his own insecurities of inadequacy and failure.

Summary: In his first feature-length film, Rashaad Ernesto Green (a winner of season two of BET’s Lens on Talent) throws audiences into the realities of transgender life in New York City. Raw, disturbing and educational, Gun Hill Road is sure to shake up what the average audience might think of someone who suffers from being born in the wrong body. Gone are the bright and fabulous colors of drag queens that we’ve seen in films like To Wong Foo or reality shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. Gun Hill Road isn’t wigged out glam, ending on a sassy finger snap or stereotypical lingo. Finally, a film that gives people of transgender experience (more specifically, trans people of color) some depth.

Green deserves praise for the solid writing and directing of Gun Hill Road. In many films, we always give credit to the actors, who are what we see upfront. And while the cast did an excellent job, it was clearly Green’s vision, talent and understanding of this subculture that gave the film needed authenticity. A movie about a transgender life, which includes sex scenes, getting “pumped” (slang for silicone injections in the buttocks and breasts) and extreme violence, could’ve easily come off campy or exploitive.  Yes, in moments the film is predictable and the tragic LGBT teen is starting to become screenplay cliché .  But Green never forgets the humanity, and even in scenes that struggle, the heart of this flick is clear.

The film includes the ageless Esai Morales, best known for his role in La Bamba. Morales is the father of the transgender teen and skillfully embodies the frustration of being an ex-con and blaming himself for his son who wants to be a girl. Judy Reyes, most famous for her work in Scrubs, shines as the understanding mother, who is wrestling with her own secret.  At times, plots collide but Green quickly brings you on track when the focus shifts to Michael/Vanessa.

Transsexual actress Harmony Santana stars as Michael and played the role before she transitioned to being a woman. This is her first professional acting role and at times she fights to hold her own among veterans like Morales and Reyes. Her performance softly bounces between sad and quiet, never really having a knock-out moment. That said, as someone who has lived in the tri-state area for over a decade, this is a world that I am familiar with, so with the average viewer she might have hit a home run.  Personally, I wanted more intensity and fire, and I believe Santana has the potential.  Nonetheless, Santana gives a respectable performance.  I’ll be curious to see her acting chops in future roles.

At its soul, Gun Hill Road is a story of family. The dreams we have for our fathers, mothers and children, and how the outcome isn’t always what we envision. But, will you still be able to love those who boldly take their own path, no matter how different it is from the one you wished?  This is the first must-see indie of the summer.

Gun Hill Road is in theaters in New York Friday, August 5 and opens in select cities August 12.

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