This family drama takes some expected, even stereotypical turns. But it gets a lot of things right.
So much of Lowriders, directed by Ricardo de Montreuil and opening May 12, is encapsulated by a short scene near the start of the film: Danny, the protagonist, skateboards across L.A.’s iconic Sixth Street bridge, heading from downtown toward the historically working-class, overwhelmingly Latino east side. In a voiceover, Danny tells viewers about his life in the city and his father’s lowrider car club, the Coasters: “I grew up in Boyle Heights,” he says. “But for kids like me, L.A. isn’t divided by the Sixth Street bridge.”
Danny, a graffiti artist, a Chicano, and an Angeleno, crosses the bridge and travels the whole city. He drives into gentrified Echo Park, into Venice, and back to the east side; it’s a versatile existence in one of the most diverse cities in the world. “Me and my homies, we’ve never been to Mexico, and our Spanish ain’t perfect. You can find us partying with the hipsters in Echo Park, chilling at the skatepark in Venice, or doing karaoke in K-Town,” Danny says, near the beginning.
This ethnic and geographical fluidity—and the occasional tension that arises as Danny’s worlds clash against each other—turns out to be the most interesting part of a movie that sometimes slips into predictability and melodrama.
Lowriders is a family drama revolving around Danny, his recovering-alcoholic father, Miguel, and his brother Ghost, recently released from prison after an eight-year stint for stealing cars to make lowriders. Miguel’s car club is the fixture that roots the fractured family in place, and the rising action of the film is centered around a looming car show at Elysian Park, where Miguel feels enormous pressure to win best in show.
At a glance, the themes of the movie look worn, even a little cheesy: Danny is a troubled but talented kid, getting arrested for spray painting his tag name, “Draw,” all over the city. His brother is in jail, his dad is an alcoholic, and his family life revolves around the auto shop culture and tradition. Sometimes the writing feels cliche and predictable. At one point, Danny muses, “This whole city is my canvas.” The movie’s saving grace is its luminous characters, believably played by a largely Latino cast. They navigate a multi-dimensional, multi-ethnic Los Angeles, provoking questions about what it means to make art as a Mexican-American, and where that art belongs in the geography of the city.
Filming for Lowriders began in 2015, but the movie’s release feels prescient: Right now, Danny’s home neighborhood of Boyle Heights is embroiled in controversy over the art galleries popping up at the neighborhood’s west edge. Community groups perceive them as precursors to a wave of gentrification, threatening to displace low-income immigrant residents and change the cultural fabric of the neighborhood. The words “fuck white art” have appeared on a grate in front of a gallery door, and activists have physically chased gallery patrons to their cars. One gallery has already shut down, citing harassment from activists as a motivating factor.
The movie doesn’t deal directly with art galleries as harbingers of gentrification, or even talk much about neighborhood change. But it deeply interrogates Danny’s identity as an artist and as a human being: he is pulled between a largely white art world of galleries and shows to an almost exclusively Chicano world of murals on beautifully made cars. He tries to carve out his own space in the noise, tagging his name around the city and painting huge faceless murals of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the sides of buildings. Throughout the film, he has to constantly answer questions about which world he belongs in and how to navigate an inherently in-between space: in between whiteness and Mexican-ness, in between rich and poor, in between the east side of L.A. and the west.
Instead of showing us an identity struggle and an eventual resolution, the film shows us Danny’s headstrong sureness, steadily punctuated by little moments of conflict and very subtle tension. The main driver of that tension is Danny’s white girlfriend, Lorelei, a photographer he meets at a punk show. Lorelei regularly takes photos of Danny’s work all across the city—without knowing that it’s his—and hangs the pictures up to sell. It’s hard to ignore the optics of a white woman photographing Chicano art and profiting from it, never really considering whose artwork it is (and perhaps never really considering the tags artwork at all). At a crescendo of tension between the couple near the end of the film, Danny tells her: “You don’t know shit about me, Lorelei. You follow me around, taking photos of shit you don’t know nothing about.”
At least in the beginning, Danny doesn’t seem to know all that much about it, either. The film is mostly about him exploring where he fits in the maze, and how to position himself within a long family history of artists channeling their talents into making lowriders. Where he sometimes appears to feel trapped by that legacy, he also eventually gains a real, profound appreciation for what the practice means to his family, his history, his city, and himself.
In a city with such a long legacy of Chicano art and culture, it’s worth continuing to explore self-expression in this community—and how it’s changing and shifting along with populations and neighborhoods. Even if the the writing sometimes feels a little lazy, this movie explores those questions deftly, intelligently, and in a way that feels authentic to Chicano and Angeleno culture. It’s worth watching for that.