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, and painted murals on the hood. 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 subculture. 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, transcend ethnicity.
And so we have Danny (Gabriel Chavarria), a graffiti artist and part-time worker in his dad Miguel’s (Demián Bichir) lowrider auto shop. Dad doesn’t think Danny is a real artist; Danny insists that he is. They don’t talk about older brother Francisco (Theo Rossi), just out of prison. They don’t really talk about much at all beyond cars. When Danny shrugs and says that Miguel’s prize vehicle, 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) — yells at her man, “You have to talk to your sons!” he generally figures out how to do that, so he doesn’t lose them. 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 spark plugs 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 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. Danny actually scoffs at his manic-pixie-dream-girlish new girlfriend, hipster photographer Lorelai (Melissa Benoist, TV’s Supergirl), 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.
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.
There’s a special kind of awful in a movie that cannot even satisfy well-worn clichés without cheating to get there.