With an opening-night slot and a bidding war won by Focus Features, the black teen coming-out saga "Pariah" was among the 2011 Sundance Film Festival's hits. However, that fervor buried the superior accomplishments of another Sundance entry with markedly similar ingredients: Rashad Ernesto Green's "Gun Hill Road."
Both films take place in lower-class New York communities and involve traditionalist parents coming to terms with their gay teenagers, but "Gun Hill Road" is decidedly more queer. Although "Pariah" star Adepero Oduye makes a strong debut in a role that calls for the subtle expression of a young outsider's angst, the lead in "Gun Hill Road" faces a deeper challenge. Transexual actress Harmony Santana plays Bronx teenager Michael, a feminine man in transition whose lifestyle stuns his recently incarcerated father, Enrique (Esai Morales).
In the opening minutes, Enrique awkwardly tries to regain his parental role after leaving prison having served years for various street crimes. When an offer to take his boy to a baseball game receives a disinterested stare, Enrique enters a period of denial. Meanwhile, Michael continues dressing up in feminine clothing and frequenting clubs, shyly confronting his nascent identity whenever his father turns his back.
While his affectionate mother (Judy Reyes) turns a blind eye, Enrique eventually catches on to his son's antics. Scenes of fierce confrontation run the risk of growing shrill (Enrique bellows, "You're my boy!"), but Green maintains a tight grip on his performers that allows the material to overcome its familiar dramatic trajectory of brawl, bawl, reconcile and repeat.
Santana was cast prior to making her gender transition and had never acted before. Her personal experience brings such legitimacy that she would probably succeed in the role even if she sucked at line reading. Fortunately, she doesn't. Michael's internal conflict registers with tremendous detail that transcends the character's progressive value.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie can't keep pace. Enrique's one-note struggle with his criminal past has a rote trajectory that turns him into an archetype. And Michael's world is marred by similarly underdeveloped twists, including his experience with a young man who leads him on and then out to dry. While those gaps may prevent "Gun Hill Road" from realizing its potential, they do manage to reflect Michael's view as the ultimate pariah.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Newcomer Motion Film Group picked up the film at Sundance and opens it in New York this week. A national rollout follows in the coming weeks, including a number of AMC theaters. Santana was recently featured in a New York Times article about transgender film actors, which should help raise the movie's profile as it continues to generate buzz among gay filmgoers. It faces a bigger challenge crossing over to the wider arthouse crowd, although generally positive reviews should help it do steady business.