When I was a nineteen during the repressed 1950's, one of the places my pals and I went to on a Friday night was Ben Maksik's Town and Country night club, the leading such place in Brooklyn, where what passed for risque was this act. A group of performers sang and danced on the stage, all dressed like women. However, there was only one woman in the cast: the rest were fellows who were trans-sexual, transvestites, or just actors pretending. We in the audience had to guess who was the woman, and believe me, that was puzzling. I scored zero for eight during the eight times that we went there.

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Motion Picture Group

Reviewed for Arizona Reporter
by Harvey Karten

Grade: B+
Directed By: Rashaad Ernesto Green
Written By: Rashaad Ernesto Green
Cast: Esai Morales, Harmony Santana, Judy Reyes, Tyrone Brown, Franky G, Miriam Colon, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Screened at: NYC, 7/11/11
Opens: August 5, 2011

This sort of show is presumably well outdated by now, but the way is clear for the movie industry to latch onto themes relating to sexual identity, as Kimberly Peirce so exquisitely demonstrated in "Boys Don't Cry." In that one, Hilary Swank took the role of a transgendered teen female, Brandon Teena, who preferred being identified as a male. This comes to mind while watching the terrific debut performance of Harmony Santana in Rashaad Ernesto Green's "Gun Hill Road," in the role of Michael/Vanessa, a high-school boy who prefers to be identified as a female-only where it's safe to change roles.

One of the great mysteries of the movie leads me back to Ben Maksik's. Santana is so convincing as both a boy and a girl that the audience cannot be blamed for wondering about Santana's own gender. The Internet Movie Database has almost no information about the performer, though she is listed as "actress," but she has the voice of a male. Intriguing!

While "Gun Hill Road " is surely not the complex masterwork of "Boys Don't' Cry," the movie is wholly absorbing thanks to great ensemble performances, realistic fist-fights, a handsome, macho lead, the lead's wife who matches his skill, and its sensitive portrayal of a lad who is coming of age, a particularly scary passage considering that he is opposed vigorously by his father and the source of catcalls in his high school.

Filmed by Daniel Patterson on location in a multi-racial, working-class Bronx neighborhood, using DeWitt Clinton High School, a cramped apartment, and the streets under the El, "Gun Hill Road" takes us first into a jail where Enrique (Esai Morales) is languishing in jail for a variety of felonies involving drugs, larceny and resisting arrest. Free on parole, he is told by his officer (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) that he must keep his nose clean and get a job or back he goes. Returning home to his wife, Angela (Judy Reyes) and son Michael (Harmony Santana), he faces indifference at best from the boy and mixed feelings from his wife-who has carried on an affair with another man. While Enrique is understanding enough to recognize that "it's not normal" for his wife to be celibate for three years, he is furious upon discovering that his son has been cross-dressing, later discovering that in the boy's high school, he insists on using the girls' room and making up his face with eye-liner.

Needless to say, sparks are generated, though we see that that father loves the boy. Unlike Michael's wife and grandmother (Miriam Colon) who accept Michael's identity conflict, Enrique goes ballistic, trying various techniques to "cure" his son of this "malady." The chemistry between father and mother is palpable despite the mother's mixed feelings about her man's even returning home. Luckily for Michael, who goes by the name Vanessa in the local poetry club where the boy writes and recites poems beautifully, Enrique never catches Michael's regular dates with Chris (Tyrone Brown), who is sexually attracted to Michael/Vanessa, making naive people like me wonder whether Chris is gay or straight or a combination, considering that his meetings with Michael are always during Michael's transformation as a woman.

The concluding image from the film is subject to interpretation, as Michael, at a key point in his life, gives his father a look that could be seen as either loving or rejecting. Harmony Santana's debut will rank among the best first efforts this year.

Rated R. 88 minutes. © 2011 Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online.

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