Starring: Gabriel Chavarria, Demian Bichir, Theo Rossi, Melissa Benoist, Eva Longoria, Tony Revolori
Rated PG-13 for Language, Some Violence, Sensuality, Thematic Elements and Brief Drug Use
I've often said that I go easier on films that try to do something different. Even if they aren't perfect or don't quite work, I'll give them credit for going against the grain. However, the reverse is true. If a film takes no chances or settles for routine, I'm tougher on them. If a movie plays it safe, it has to bring something new to the table (such as good storytelling, acting, etc., like in "Blood Diamond"). However, if you clearly ignore interesting possibilities in your story or waste talents of your actors in playing it safe, that's when I turn hostile.
Such is the case of "Lowriders," an urban drama that seeks to meld a dysfunctional family yarn with an underdog story. In addition to being routine on both counts, it does both badly. There's plenty of bad melodrama, plot holes and eye-rolling contrivances to go around, sabotaging the valiant efforts of the cast to create characters we care about.
Danny Alvarez (Chavarria) is a young street artist struggling to stay above water. His home life is a mess; his mother has died, his father Miguel (Bichir) seeks to interest him in his obsession with lowriding (building tricked out cars), his step-mother Gloria (Longoria) is around long enough to worry about the both of them. Now his older brother Francisco (Rossi) has been released from prison, causing further friction. Danny meets a girl named Lorelai (Benoist) who could lead him to better things.
There's a lot going on, but it's all surprisingly coherent. Which is a problem, since it highlights how lame and lazy it all is. There hasn't been a narrative film about low-riding before, which is a nice change of pace, I guess, and there isn't a single drug dealer in sight (ditto), but that's just the seasoning. The important stuff, like characters and story, is all borrowed from movie formulas so ancient that the term "grave-robbing" can apply. There's precious little in this movie that hasn't been done before. Many times, in fact.
The actors are better than this material. Made up of character actors and unknowns, the cast is ripe with talent. They do what they can, but ultimately, they're hamstrung by material that's worthy of a high school playwright. Gabriel Chavarria is effective in an everyman sort of way. It's a low-key performance, but he shows a natural, unforced charisma that should get him noticed. He has wonderful chemistry with the hipster photographer played by Melissa Benoist, and as a result, their scenes are the most interesting in the movie. Demian Bichir does what he can with the clichéd role of the alcoholic grieving father who can't express himself, and he manages to make the character interesting, rather than so emotionally retarded that I wanted to slug him. Theo Rossi is appropriately serpentine, until the film lets him off the hook.
There is some worthwhile material. Whenever Ricardo de Montreuil allows his characters to breathe and escape the clichés that the script forces them into, it works. But such moments are few. They're like finding a few dry spots in the town dump. Only the strength of the performances save it from becoming a total nightmare.
Occasionally when you see a bad movie, there's another one that does the same thing better. There's a movie called "Black Irish" that is very similar but eons better. It's about an Irish Catholic family from South Boston rather than a Latino family from Southern Los Angeles, but many of its concepts are there as well. But because it is written with more honesty and specificity, it is a much better film. Skip this one and see that little indie gem.