In southern Los Angeles, the lower you go the better in the competition that has the Mexican-American community battling for prestigious rights. In “Lowriders”, Set against the vibrant backdrop of East LA’s near-spiritual car culture, Danny (Gabriel Chavarria) is a talented young street artist who is caught between the lowrider underworld inhabited by his old-school father (Demián Bichir) and ex-con brother Ghost (Theo Rossi), and the adrenaline-fueled outlet of graffiti art that defines his self-expression. When Danny’s life comes to a crossroads, he must make the decision between family and family to steer him on the right path towards an ambitious future. “Lowriders” is directed by Ricardo de Montreuil in his first feature film, and is rated PG-13 for adult language, some violence, sensuality, thematic elements and brief drug use.
“Lowriders” approaches the concepts and the histories of one of automobile’s most prolific models and spins it into a family drama that is equally as compelling as it is informative. For the first half hour of this movie, I really didn’t know what to expect, but was slightly worried that this movie would serve more as a biopic for its automotive title character, and less about the spinning web of family tangling going on within the picture. Thankfully, my worries were put to rest, as de Montreuil’s film is a portrait on the struggles of family grief, as well as a front-and-center love-letter to the kind of arts and concepts that go into the car. From Ricardo’s point-of-view, the car is really just the table dressing to the main course that simmers underneath the hood. The real story is in the trio of family characters here whose pasts have set them on different sides of the tracks respectively. There’s a real understanding of the essence not only in the Mexican-American community and its families, but also in that of Southern Los Angeles for the visual spectre and feels of this melting pot that constantly keeps on boiling for its many of stories under one roof. This is just one of those stories, and it brought me enough suitable entertainment for 93 minutes that it’s really difficult to ever begrudge it for the few things it does misfire on.
What I enjoy about the narrative is that we as an audience are coming into this story with the past already playing a pivotal meaning in the relationships between each of the sons with his Father. Danny as a protagonist is kind of that young adult who is at a crossroads within his own life, so when the return of his absent Brother comes into play, we immediately see the effects of such an influence in his own life. For me, the most compelling aspect of this movie was between the divided relationship of Ghost and his Father, which took the movie on slightly more serious turns than what the gimmick of lowriders could do for the story. It’s in this subplot where we attain the knowledge of just how important these man-made structures are to the overall enlightenment of the audience watching at home, and for me it was during the brief interaction between these two when the movie prospers the most. The film doesn’t necessarily paint Ghost as this villain character, instead choosing to focus on the positives and negatives within each of the three main characters. After he gets out of prison, his actions dictate the kind of person and influence that he wants to be to Danny, and this is where the film nearly lost me in the shuffle of conventionalism that felt like it was playing desperately to studio needs.
The film does at times feel slightly by-the-numbers, in that you can see the outline of the predictable story, even if it takes some unorthodox methods of attaining this status. The second act of the film is definitely the dullest for me in terms of wiggle room for this outline, and suddenly there are some vast character shifts that kind of alienate the equal moral compass that the film once prescribed for itself. There is also a romantic interest for Danny introduced in the form of Melissa Benoist that felt shoe-horned in, and assured even more of such towards the end of the movie when it’s never brought up again after their “Routine” couple drama that happens in every movie for the sake of it. It’s nothing that I could fault it for too much, but if you’ve seen one of these kind of hard knocks lifestyle movies, you’ve seen them all, and “Lowriders” does very little to distance itself from an overcrowded genre that feels like we’ve seen everything by this point. The final act does pick itself up slightly, and there’s enough mystery and intrigue in the film’s closing minutes to put the story back to where it needs to be first and foremost; the dramatic circumference between this family’s tangled web that desperately needs healing. Without spoiling too much, I think the ending satisfied this craving while adding enough uncertainty between them that feeds into ideals of cleansing, in that not everything is as simple as open and shut.
One aspect to the movie that did fruitfully achieve the Los Angeles color palate was that of the shot composition and overall cinematography by Andres Sanchez that really illuminated this picture. There’s a constant tinge of yellow to the film’s illustration, radiating the always sunny backdrop of Southern L.A that shines on its blacktop streets. The camera work here is carefully depicted in that it has that grainy kind of visual to it, but moves fluently with and around our characters to capture the cheap essence of an independent movie. This is a worthy choice to me because pristine visuals that are too clean will sometimes spoil the feel of the environment that the movie’s creative engine is trying to depict. Because of such, de Montreuil feels like the right man for the job in constructing the right visual tones for the film that depict the city of angels as a character in itself. A place where the streets can make or break you, depending on which one you take.
As for performances, “Lowriders” has a solid Mexican-American dominated cast that more-than gladly took the ball and ran with their meaty characters. Demian Birchir is someone we’re starting to see more of, with recent turns in “The Hateful Eight”, as well as “Alien: Covenant”, but he feels most at home with family drama as gritty as this. Birchir’s pop character has lost a lot in his life, most notably his wife who passed away off-screen, so the values that he tries to store upon Danny feel like the only thing he has left. Birchir is warm and humble as this father figure, but not afraid to raise his tones when he feels threatened, a true Father figure if there ever was one. As for youthful approaches, Chavarria takes his first lead in a major motion picture, and Rossi once again steals the show as a sneaky antagonist we love to hate. On the former, Danny is every bit the kind of typical protagonist you expect to see in these films, often times making the stupid decisions to cater to his youth, but the slow aging of how Chavarria supplants this character is what makes him profitable to this story. Rossi himself can do so much in a look that tells you everything you need to know about his character, and as far as visual traits go, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Hollywood who can stare into the camera emoting such deceit.
THE VERDICT – “Lowriders” does muddle occasionally in predictably shallow waters in overall plot structure, but the film’s warm-hearted peak into an often under-executed Mexican-American setting, and authentic visual presentation more than make up for some of the short-comings that can hinder it from going the full mile. Ricardo de Montreuil’s film doesn’t feel forced to keep the story on the road, instead choosing to focus on the ardent entanglements of forgiveness that has plagued this family’s future.