Hollywood and East L.A. are only about 12 miles apart, yet the former pays remarkably little attention to the latter, at least in the movies. Lowriders, set primarily in Boyle Heights (with occasional excursions to Elysian Park), aims to be a corrective, focusing on the region’s predominantly Latino population and hugely influential automotive culture. Anyone hoping to see some serious hydraulic action, however, will likely be disappointed. Low-riding takes a backseat here to man-whining, as the film’s main characters—a father and his two sons—petulantly jostle for dominance in a family melodrama so generic that it could unfold in just about any context. Far more creativity went into the various cars’ hood murals than into the screenplay.
As it happens, painting hood murals provides a legal opportunity for Danny (Gabriel Chavarria), a budding graffiti artist, to ply his trade. For some reason, it takes him a while to realize this, even though his father, Miguel (Demián Bichir, looking suitably intimidating with a bald head, curving mustache, and soul patch), runs a garage and is deeply involved in the low-riding community, lavishing all his attention upon a vintage Chevy Impala known as Green Poison. Complicating matters is the sudden appearance of Miguel’s older son, Francisco (Sons Of Anarchy’s Theo Rossi), who’s just finished a lengthy prison sentence. Danny, his loyalty torn, decides to leave home following an argument with Dad, staying with his brother, who’s formed a rival car club and plans to challenge Miguel at a major annual low-rider competition. (For those unfamiliar with the scene, this competition is a parade, not a race—there’s nothing remotely fast or furious about it. Think of it as a badass fashion show for cars.) The violent streak that landed Francisco in prison hasn’t disappeared, though, and simmering filial resentment leads to property damage and worse.
One of the film’s two credited screenwriters, Elgin James, recently did some prison time himself (for extortion committed when he was a gang member), which may help explain why a movie called Lowriders expends so much more energy on an ex-con’s grudge than it does on road-hugging vehicles. (The other writer is Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker.) Rossi gives an intensely charismatic performance, but Francisco, who rather pointedly goes by “Ghost” (because Dad hasn’t so much as spoken of him in years; try to imagine an organic way that this nickname could have developed during the time he was behind bars), is saddled with multiple maudlin scenes in which he stews about the lack of family visits during his incarceration. Meanwhile, Danny gets romantically involved with a hip photographer (Supergirl’s Melissa Benoist) who seems turned on by his “street cred”—though the movie doesn’t take this potentially compelling idea much of anywhere—and Eva Longoria is given virtually nothing to do as Miguel’s wife, who’s neither Danny’s nor Francisco’s mother and consequently tends to just be politely ignored.
When a film’s narrative is this bland, its milieu really needs to pick up the slack. Lowriders does right by L.A. geography, showcasing striking locations that rarely see much screen time. And whenever it bothers to engage with its ostensible subject, it briefly springs to life. Even then, though, opportunities are squandered. Peruvian-born director Ricardo De Montreuil, who likes to shoot simple conversations in handheld shaky-cam, demonstrates little feel for the exhibitionistic idle of low-riding; there’s never any sense of coiled power behind the wheel, and a scene in which Danny and his girlfriend sit in a car and get hydraulically bounced up and down might as well have been set on an amusement park ride. This isn’t remotely an art film, but the people who felt like they got burned by Drive would have a much stronger case for false advertising here. Come for the customized muscle cars; stay—or don’t—for the earnest mush.