I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
A lowrider is a kind of customized car most associated with the Mexican-American community in Los Angeles. Customization features hydraulics that raise, lower, and bounce the chassis; paint jobs that gleam almost supernaturally topped by spectacular painted murals on the hood, sides, and other surfaces; a surfeit of chrome and other bling; and much more. Lowriders are highly personal works of art for their dude creators — pretty much always a dude — in which a dude also looks supercool slow-cruising the southern California boulevards.
If you do not already know all of this, Lowriders is not for you. There’s no onramp for an interested outsider to gain a true appreciation for a unique sub-subculture, one borne out of reactions to bigotry and police harassment of Latino men, but also of celebrations of Mexican heritage overlain upon American worship of the automobile. There are really fascinating stories to tell about that, I have no doubt. Alas, the best that can be said about Lowriders is that it seems keen to suggest that melodramas full of hoary clichés about men who are unable to express themselves emotionally except through heavy machinery and the resultant strained relationships between fathers and sons transcend ethnicity, and isn’t it about time the Mexican-American community had one of its own?
And so we have Danny (Gabriel Chavarria), in his late teens or early 20s, a graffiti artist and part-time worker in his dad Miguel’s (Demián Bichir: The Hateful Eight, Machete Kills) lowrider auto shop. Dad doesn’t think Danny is a real artist; Danny insists that he is (his work is actually really good, even if it is illegal). They don’t talk about older brother Francisco (Theo Rossi: Bad Hurt, Cloverfield), just out of prison. They don’t really talk about much at all, unless it’s about cars, and in particular Miguel’s prize car, “Green Poison,” which is, we are informed, “a legend.” (We are not offered any explanation of what that means.) When Danny shrugs and says that Green Poison is “just a car,” well, he gets a good verbal lashing for that. It certainly seems as if Miguel cares more about that damn car than he does about Danny, and I was really hoping that Danny was gonna pull a Cameron-in-Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and send it flying through some plate glass.
But that never happens. Lowriders, the first English-language film from Peruvian director Ricardo de Montreuil, isn’t just clichéd: it doubles down on its clichés. In other similarly cheap and easy movies, when the ridiculously supportive woman — such as Miguel’s wife, Gloria (Eva Longoria: In a World…, Arthur Christmas) — yells at her man, “You have to talk to your sons!” he generally figures out how to do that, so that he doesn’t lose them (after his angsty initial reply to her of “I can’t talk to my sons!” of course). Not here. Lowriders is mostly about how Danny eventually comes around to Miguel’s point of view, that “lowriders are about family” and that the proper venue for male tenderness involves more chrome than conversation, more sparkplugs than hugs.
It’s almost as if getting to that ending, that embrace of men’s inability to actually confront their own inner selves and their relationships with others, is built in from the beginning of the film: these men feel more like pawns of a shaky plot than plausible people. (They don’t even feel like people who are plausibly confused or uncertain.) The script, by Cheo Hodari Coker (Notorious) and Elgin James, is full of such head-scratchers as this bit from Danny’s narration: “I put up my art for free, and he wastes his money on car parts? That makes no sense to me.” I don’t understand how that is meant to reflect Danny’s frustration with his father: isn’t working for free also throwing away money? Danny informs his father, “I guarantee you I’m gonna make it with my art,” but he doesn’t seem to know what that means. (He seems to be utterly impervious to the screamingly obvious way for him to succeed as an artist and also make Miguel happy, by painting murals on lowriders, until the plot requires that he have this revelation.) Danny actually scoffs at his manic-pixie-dream-girl-ish new girlfriend, hipster photographer Lorelai (Melissa Benoist: Patriots Day, Danny Collins), who tries to set him up with gallery contacts and push him toward the success he says he’s seeking. What does he think being a successful artist means, if not that? The movie seems to believe that Danny has no options beyond what he ends up with here, so it’s hardly the triumphant “choice” it’s framed as.
Lowriders’ other “notable” achievement is shoehorning in just about every clichéd supporting female character. Apart from patient and tolerant Gloria and MPDG Lorelai, there’s also Danny and Francisco’s sainted dead mother, Miguel’s first wife, who is much discussed as the source of much manly pain (“she was beautiful, bro, an angel”); Francisco’s girlfriend, literally a mute, nameless accessory who hangs off his shoulder; and others. Women are called “hos” and likened to automobiles. It’s not charming.
And still, Lowriders might have skirted by as the unchallenging melodrama it wants to be, until it nosedives into inexcusable absurdity in the final third. Without any hint that such a thing was possible, one character enacts an unforgivable betrayal of others, and then is just as mysteriously accepted back into the family of lowriders without so much as an unconvincing cheesy scene in which forgiveness is begged for and then grudgingly given. Another scene, set at a car event supposedly so exclusive that tickets are impossible to get, sees someone who doesn’t have a ticket waltz right in.
There’s a special kind of awful in a movie that cannot even satisfy well-worn clichés without cheating to get there.