A sleepy earnestness both ennobles and afflicts Ricardo de Montreuil's fathers-and-sons story Lowriders. At first the film plays as a low-key corrective, a Hollywood drama with name producers (Brian Grazer, Jason Blum) that, outside of a couple of tutorial info-dumps covering cultural basics, presents East Los Angeles lives like pretty much any of the others we've always seen on multiplex screens.
The problems facing dreamy muralist and tagger Danny Alvarez (Gabriel Chavarria) line up with the problems facing generations of coming-of-age-movie heroes: His dad prefers that he give up his art and join the family business. His brother hates his dad and tries to get Danny to take a side. The cops chase him, not because he's caught up in the street life but because he pees off a bridge at the wrong time, just after being abandoned by his ride, a friend who, at summer's end, is off to study at Columbia. Rather than a spat over the family farm or the balance of the Force, the dynastic drama here centers on a sweet ’69 Impala, candy green and riding so low you couldn’t slip a slice of American cheese between its fender and the pavement.
It’s not just the car, of course. “It’s your heritage!” insists Danny’s father, Miguel (Demián Bichir), a recovering alcoholic who runs a garage and ranks in lowrider competitions in Elysian Park. In case viewers don’t get it, Miguel then lays out the central conflict with all the succinct clarity of a movie trailer: “It’s priceless!” he tells Danny. “This is a work of art — something you know nothing about!”
Each of the three boys tends to a car over the course of the film, and each somehow still manages to bounce on its hydraulics despite being freighted with symbolism. Miguel’s ride, a labor of love he’s fussed over for years, comes with an old family mural painted on its hood. Prodigal son Francisco (Theo Rossi) has just returned from prison, where he was serving time for stealing parts for his own competition car. And Danny himself eventually will refurbish a junked ’36 Chevy, his work something like what screenwriters Cheo Hodari Coker and Elgin James have done: making something new and personal out of the oldest of frames.
Despite the title, the film offers little lowriding down Crenshaw Boulevard. Instead, our time with Danny covers a graffiti tour of Los Angeles, a misty-eyed tattoo session between brothers, a visit to punk club the Smell, a foot chase with police that inexplicably begins at night and ends in daylight, and a whirlwind romance between Danny and a white photographer (Melissa Benoist) who tries to sell photos of street art (an act of literal, and unimaginative, appropriation). He calls her “hipster,” they make out behind the lighted-up marquee at the Orpheum Theater, and she volunteers a hot-take explanation to a gallery owner of what Danny’s mural of a faceless Lady of Guadalupe says about his relationship with the traditions he was born into. Her presumption, in this moment, is underplayed and entirely believable, a rare offhand observation in a movie that mostly rolls out its plot points in a slow, thumping parade. (Too bad the women here, including Eva Longoria, are otherwise given so little to do.)
Eventually, of course, Miguel will face his boys at a judged car contest. But other than a from-nowhere burst of violence that nearly destroys the movie, Lowriders is a refreshingly muted celebration of family and forgiveness, of honoring your roots while being yourself. Sometimes it’s hokey, and the filmmaking is often at odds with the performances. De Montreuil favors loose, jarring closeups, the faces bobbing in and out of the frame, and he tends to cut quickly from one actor to another, so that key conversations play out as a procession of confused images of half-framed heads. We rarely see a character react; instead we see each reaction already arrived at, with little room for nuance or surprise. Only Rossi, as Francisco, manages to impose his own rhythms on his scenes — Francisco is slyly mercurial, cruel but wounded, a preening villain hungry for redemption. He invests even a corny climax with gravity.