Lowriders review: The Way of the Cholo
It's an East L.A. Oedipal story as old as the Olmecs. A striving young artist and his prodigal brother are through with their pops. Their mom's been dead three years and old-man Miguel (Demián Bichir, an Oscar nominee for 2012's A Better Life) is out-of-touch and emotionally shut down. He's currently off the sauce, which makes him less likely to lash out, but he's more interested in his gorgeous new wife Gloria (Eva Longoria) and working on exquisitely crafted cars, especially a pride-and-joy 1961 Chevy Impala known among his Cruisers Car Club homies as Green Poison. The boys are straight-up celosos — jealous — and then some.
Danny (Gabriel Chavarria, of Hulu's East Los High) spends his nights throwing up murals of a mysteriously faceless woman and ditching graffiti cops. He's part of a new generation of Mexican-American kids — internet-connected, easily mixing with Silver Lake hipsters, Crenshaw-district blacks and the Asian-American karaoke scene in K-Town. Like any other American teen, he wears nondescript hoodies, ball caps and sneakers, and all he wants is to make a name so he can be left alone to make art. "Me and my homies, we've never been to Mexico and, no, our Spanish ain't perfect," Danny says in a voiceover. "Sometimes we do end up the night at Taco Zone. Yeah, we eat tacos. Why not, right?"
Danny's brother Francisco (Theo Rossi, of Sons of Anarchy) hasn't channeled his grief into such productive pursuits. We meet him fresh out of prison, covered in tats and spoiling for a fight with dad. He goes by the nickname Ghost, because he feels like he's invisible. So like an evil Ferris Bueller slithering his way behind the wheel of a verboten Ferrari, Ghost persuades Danny to take a joyride in Green Poison. It's an exquisitely subtle form of revenge that bristles with danger, especially since Ghost has joined a new crew, the Central City Car Club, and plans to ace out dad's wheels in a lowrider showdown at Elysian Park.
And so this three-way Mexican-American standoff is established, with complications provided by a harmless best friend who wants to play bad-boy (Tony Revolori, of The Grand Budapest Hotel), an art-world connected güera girlfriend (Melissa Benoist, TV's Supergirl and Glee) and an oddly gentle detective (Cress Williams) looking to put Ghost back in an orange jumpsuit. Peruvian-born director Ricardo de Montreuil (La mujer de mi hermano) adroitly assembles all these strands and never forgets to titillate with the silky sheen of 40-coat metallic-flake paint jobs, gleaming trim and the joyful pride of "hitting switches" that send these automotive show ponies rearing up on their hind axles like stallions. The key cast members are brilliant throughout, especially Chavarria, who engages with abundant charisma and an inquisitive tenderness that recalls Valley Girl-era Nicolas Cage. Without the Telenovela/Desperate Housewives glitz, Longoria is a wonder as a former chola who can diagnose engine trouble just as well as she can apply perfectly sculpted mascara and eyeliner.
The only thing that misfires here is the script, based on early drafts by Cheo Hodari Coker (Luke Cage, Ray Donovan) and Elgin James (Mayans MC). What clearly started out as an excuse to showcase the contagious car culture of Southern California's Chicano community strains to build an earnest family theme with Rossi's Ghost burning through every scene like a flamethrower. The stakes are quickly raised to those of life and death, which undermines the nuances of Bichir's abashed father and Chavarria's unquenchable optimism. The result is the cinematic equivalent of a museum-quality restoration with an underpowered VW block beneath the hood.
Still, with a propulsive soundtrack from artists such as Chicano Batman, Kali Uchis and No Parents, Lowriders rumbles along at a pace just below the speed limit, all the better to take in the sights and sounds of this vato-born Renaissance of rims and hydraulics. "We took the American dream and covered it with candy paint and chrome," Miguel tells Gabriel. "But some people don't like the American Dream to look different."
De Montreuil is clever enough to avoid any current culture clash over Mexican immigrants. These characters, he insists by straightforward depiction, are inherently American and, like African-Americans, are spreading their brand of culture far beyond the barrio, to car shows where Japanese collectors might drop $500,000 on a perfect whip, and to galleries that showcase the work of artists such as Mister Cartoon, an L.A. tattoo visionary who consulted on the film's portrayal of the lowrider scene.
With the Chicano version of the American dream under assault from orange-on-brown rhetoric, Lowriders is a welcome foil. It's showing us the strivers, the ones who are beaten down but get back up, the protean generations who took a whole lot of nothing and turned it into a vision that is finally being recognized for its inherent value.