Rarely do urban tales balance authenticity with solid drama elements and strong emotion. Boyz n the Hood and Straight Outta Compton are perfect examples. Lowriders is in their league; it checks all the boxes: acting, direction, writing and production elements. This groundbreaking film about the Latino experience in East Los Angeles will become as classic as those aforementioned films.
The production is the brainchild of Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind). Peruvian director Ricardo de Montrueil (Mancora) and writers Cheo Hodari Coker (Southland) and Elgin James (Sons of Anarchy spinoff Mayans MC) are the perceptive artists who brought the film to life.
They’ve created a compelling story with deeply drawn characters and heart-felt drama, which is perfectly dispensed and measured throughout the film. Just as you think one familial conflict is over, another emerges. The script is so well written it could become a play.
Danny Alvarez (Gabriel Chavarria), a twenty-something Chicano graffiti artist, leaves his spray-painted artwork all over East L.A. In fact, the whole city is his canvass. Many of the likenesses are of a mysterious woman, cloaked, face hidden. That image has been a part of Danny’s artistic DNA ever since his mom died.
Now he lives with his dad, Miguel (Demian Bichir, A Better Life), a recovering alcoholic who runs a car club that specializes in lowriders — classic cars with 50 coats of paint that hug the ground or can bounce high like a pogo stick.
His stepmom Gloria (Eva Longoria) and little sister round out the household. Miguel, who expresses his art through his cars, especially his prized old Chevy dubbed “Green Poison,” doesn’t approve of Danny’s graffiti. “You scribble like a b*#ch,” he tells him. And he is even less tolerant after he has to bail Danny and his buddy Chuy (Tony Revelori, The Grand Budapest Hotel) out of jail after they get busted for writing on walls.
This set up provides enough drama for a TV series, but the writers don’t stop there. Danny gets a bohemian White girlfriend Lorelai (Melissa Benoist), and their cultural differences complicate their romance. Danny’s older brother Francisco, aka Ghost (Theo Rossi, Sons of Anarchy), gets out of prison with a real grudge against the father, who never visited him and didn’t support his kids during his wife’s death.
Ghost’s way of taking revenge is by competing against his dad in a lowrider competition that has a grand prize with enough money to make a difference in both their lives.
Once the storyline is set in motion, it doesn’t stop. Conflict after conflict. Crisis after crisis. Romances strained by miscommunication and insecurities. Emotions like anger, fear, happiness and sadness ride the surface from beginning to end. It’s the mark of strong writing and the talented cast conveys those feelings perfectly.
Supporting actors like Revolori and Cress Williams (TV series Code Black) as a police detective, fill in the cracks. Eva Longoria as the nurturing stepmom turns on the charm. The very smoldering Rossi, heavily tatted, boils over with anger; the way he plays Ghost, you know violence is around the corner.
Gabriel Chavarria has just the right amount of vulnerability and bravura to make the central character believable and engaging enough to make viewers want to follow him through to the end of his journey. However, Oscar-nominated actor Demian Bichir, as the paternal figure who is fighting back demons, is the glue and mortar. Whenever he is on screen the drama rings true. His pacing, rhythm and cadence take the father figure to a deep place.
The lens of Andrés Sánchez’s camera makes the colors of the retro, lowrider autos saturated and vibrant. Interior scenes in East LA jump off the screen because of Melanie Jones’ production design and Karuna Karmarkar’s set design. The art direction, by Hunter Brown and Eve McCarney, keeps the pallet in the earth tones or bright primary colors that symbolize the culture and the locale.
Mirren Gordon-Crozier takes great pains to make the clothes look real, like they belong to the characters and not the wardrobe department. Editors Billy Fox (Straight Outta Compton) and Kiran Pallegadda (American Heist) put their foot on the gas pedal and don’t let up until the final credits come after 98 judiciously chosen minutes of footage.
Overall, the film’s consistent feel and tone is the product of director Ricardo de Montreuil, who uses his background in film, TV, advertising and print to make each set visually appealing. Every scene is racked with emotion and every performance is as resolved as possible. Montreuil gives audiences an intimate look at a car culture and a Latino/American experience that has become the lifeblood of Southern California.
It’s only springtime, but this is the kind of film that warrants an Oscar nomination campaign in several categories in the fall.
Nicely done. Warm-hearted. The film’s aura sticks with you.
Lowriders was released nationwide May 12. Check local listings for show times.
Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. As a film critic, he regularly attends international film festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and the American Black Film Festival. Read more movie reviews by Dwight Brown here and at DwightBrownInk.com.