From James Dean and the Beach Boys to “The Fast and the Furious,” southern Californian pop culture is all about cars, surfing, movies and year-round sun.
Yet the decades-old practice of “lowriding” in the barrios of East Los Angeles — perhaps the most vibrant expression of car culture — remains almost invisible to the outside world.
Peruvian filmmaker Ricardo de Montreuil’s debut English language feature “Lowriders” is the first major movie inspired by the tradition of mainly Mexican-American men cruising the streets in souped-up cars with chassis that sit low on the road.
“The brilliance of the film, what they did so well here, is that any time you can go to a film and learn something that you had no idea about… that makes for a very interesting story,” actor Theo Rossi (“Sons of Anarchy” and “Marvel’s Luke Cage”), told AFP.
“It’s the same thing we’ve seen with films like ‘8 Mile’ and even ‘Saturday Night Fever’ back in the day, where you were like, ‘Man, I didn’t even know that was the way the disco scene was in 1970s New York.'”
A story of inter-generational rivalry and artistic awakening, shot on location with real-life lowrider clubs, “Lowriders” follows Danny (Gabriel Chavarria), a talented graffiti artist.
He is caught between the lowrider world of his recovering alcoholic father Miguel — Oscar-nominated Demian Bichir (“The Hateful Eight,” “Alien: Covenant”) — and his hotheaded, volatile brother Ghost, played by 41-year-old Rossi.
America saw an explosion in automobile sales in the “Rebel Without a Cause” era of the 1950s as the road network was built up, part of the post-war economic boom, and the number of cars doubled in a decade.
Beginning with James Dean’s 1949 Mercury Coupe and kept alive by the “Grease” generation — lowriding has been taken over by LA’s huge Mexican population who invest their time, money and dreams in their rides.
Mechanics transform regular second-hand cars into bold assertions of their personal style and status with the help of top graffiti artists who add the traffic-stopping paintwork.
Since the 1960s, car clubs have been competing at shows, not unlike county fairs or rodeos, where they are judged on the custom detailing, painting, interior design and hydraulic modification.
Authorities, said to be concerned by the spread of Latino culture, banned the craze on public roads in the 1970s by passing laws dictating a car’s frame had to be a certain height off the ground.
But mechanics discovered that hidden hydraulics could help vehicles to “hop” up to 1.57 meters (five feet) on their rear wheels at the flip of a switch.
Originally confined to the mostly Mexican-American neighborhoods of East LA, the tradition has spread across southern California as far the Mexican border.
These days wealthy collectors from across the world order custom-made lowriders.
Rossi, a New Yorker who lived for 15 years in the lowriding hub of East LA, had to be persuaded to audition for “Lowriders,” as he was focusing on his final episodes as Juice in FX’s long-running “Sons of Anarchy.”
He says people expecting “The Fast and the Furious” will be surprised by a didactic and enlightening exposition of southern California’s history and culture in what is essentially a family drama.
“That’s a scary word to people nowadays in the movie business. A lot of people want to hear ‘comic book’ and ‘action’ and all these words that make for giant summer films,” said Rossi, who can currently be seen on Netflix as Shades in Marvel’s “Luke Cage.”
“But at the end of the day this is a family drama wrapped up in the beauty of the lowriding and graffiti world.”
“Lowriders” has mostly favorable reviews and 60 percent “fresh” score from reviews collated by movie website Rotten Tomatoes.
Andrew Barker of Variety magazine bemoaned a “rather shopworn story” but added that “a trio of finely calibrated performances” and an “authentic sense of place” ought to help the movie find its audience.
“When I walk down the street I love that people call me Juice or Shades. Hopefully after this they will call me Ghost,” said Rossi.
“Lowriders” — which also stars Eva Longoria (“Desperate Housewives”) and Melissa Benoist (“Supergirl,” “Glee”) — hits theaters on Friday.
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