Much like classic car customization, effective cinematic storytelling is often all about the detailing, and Ricardo de Montreuil’s “Lowriders,” which sets a tale of inter-generational rivalry and artistic awakening amidst East LA’s Latino car culture, has style and local color to spare. A peek under the hood reveals a rather shopworn story that doesn’t completely sell its more melodramatic narrative strands, but thanks to a trio of finely calibrated performances, an authentic sense of place and one gorgeously designed red ’36 Chevy, the film could get a decent degree of mileage with the proper handling.
If nothing else, “Lowriders” offers an insightful contemporary snapshot of some of Los Angeles’ easternmost neighborhoods, from Boyle Heights to Elysian Park and Echo Park. Long home to working class Latino communities, these areas have recently become hotspots for gentrification, and most attempts to put them on film have tended to focus exclusively on one side or the other. In reality these demographics mix freely, if sometimes awkwardly, and it feels refreshingly realistic to see our teenage graffiti-artist hero Danny Alvarez (Gabriel Chavarria) hit up an illicit car show, a bougie art walk, a quinceañera and real-life Downtown punk venue the Smell in the span of a few weeks.
Immersed in the Mexican-American lowrider tradition, Danny practically grew up in the garage of his recovering alcoholic father Miguel (a convincingly sorrowful Demian Bichir), and Miguel’s choice of a business name — Alvarez & Sons Motors — leaves little mystery as to the career he hopes Danny will pursue. More at home with a set of spray cans on highway overpasses, Danny’s preferred artistic medium couldn’t be further from his father’s sensibilities, and when he and his skater buddy Chuy (“The Grand Budapest Hotel’s” Tony Revolori) are picked up by the cops one night, Miguel orders him to work off the fine in the garage.
Further complications ensue with the reemergence of Danny’s brother, the charming yet volatile Francisco “Ghost” Alvarez (Theo Rossi), after a bid in prison. Ghost and Miguel are in the midst of a long feud, and Ghost hardly speaks to his new stepmom, Gloria (Eva Longoria, digging nicely into a minor character without attempting to usurp the leads). Ghost quickly convinces his younger brother to come live with him and use his graffiti skills to paint hood murals for his own rival car club, hoping to one-up his father at a big upcoming lowrider competition in Elysian Park.
Meanwhile, Danny strikes up a flirtation with a scenester photographer named Lorelai (Melissa Benoist), who had unknowingly been photographing Danny’s street murals for her own exhibits. Though underdeveloped romantically, their relationship provides for an intriguing wrinkle as Lorelai introduces Danny to her art world friends. One encounter with a hipster gallery curator offers some deftly-scripted commentary on the exotification of minority artists: When Lorelai tries to pitch him as a rough-edged Boyle Heights Basquiat who learned his craft “on the streets,” Danny gets unnerved, shooting back, “it’s not like I’m homeless…”
The film’s central father-son drama, however, plays out with a bit less wit. The Oedipal showdown at the lowrider show takes place earlier than expected, and leads to a sudden act of violence that starts to push the film into melodrama. As the hotheaded Ghost, Rossi gives the film’s most magnetic performance – he’s the type of heavy-lidded, low-key lothario whom it’s all too easy to follow down some precarious paths — but his zero-to-sixty character shifts are too extreme to be fully believable. For all its winning exchanges, once the script’s wheels start turning, it becomes a tad obvious where it’s heading.
Director de Montreuil can be a little too eager to whip his handheld cameras fore and aft with Greengrassian urgency, giving otherwise calm scenes a needless jumpiness and filling the foregrounds with too much visual noise, but the performances he elicits are rock-solid across the board, and his location choices couldn’t be better. The care that has been lavished on all the candy-colored Impalas is obvious, and the score from Bryan Senti ties together the film’s soundtrack of hip-hop and golden oldies with unobtrusive ease.