WHILE THE HOOK of "Gun Hill Road," the debut film from Rashaad Ernesto Green, is the budding transsexuality of one of its main characters, it's most powerful in its quiet moments that deal with the familial dynamics of a family torn apart by incarceration.
That's not to say that Harmony Santana's portrayal of Michael, a teenager growing up in the Bronx who prefers to take the girls restroom pass at school and wants to be called Vanessa when out with friends, isn't affecting. The young thespian is surprisingly adept at balancing the inner turmoil of budding transsexuality and teenage angst.
But it's Michael's relationship with his father Enrique (Esai Morales) that is the heart of "Gun Hill Road." But it also make "Gun Hill Road" feel less original.
Enrique has just been released from prison, expecting to return to his loving wife Angie (Judy Reyes of "Scrubs") and baseball-loving son Michael. But Angie has been having an affair with another man from the neighborhood since her husband's incarceration, and Michael has realized that he's more comfortable as Vanessa than as Michael. Enrique's frequently aggressive behavior toward his family doesn't originate from his inherent homophobia but from his realization that his family has evolved, even as he, the patriarch, has been stuck in arrested development.
Green's film rests too much on easy cliché, but Santana, Morales and Reyes elevate the material with their stunning performances.