For his fifth feature film, indie filmmaker Henry Barrial takes to the Bronx for a familial relations drama examining notions of family, marriage, and the forced archaic notion of patriarchal authority. While The House That Jack Built is unable to completely sidestep some well-worn clichés, both of a universal nature and those particular to the community within which it is set, Barrial is able to conjure a compelling level of engagement that makes you invested in the eventual outcome. Even better, he manages to do so even with an almost wholly unlikeable lead protagonist.
Jack (E.J. Bonilla) is a hot headed and handsome young patriarchal head of his extended family, and it has long been his life’s goal to provide for them all. Still a very young man, he has purchased an entire apartment complex for his whole family to live in, free of charge. His mother, Martha (Saundra Santiago), couldn’t be more proud of him, though her relationship with Jack’s father Carlos (John Herrera) is a constant source of drama due to Carlos’ alcoholism and the fiery temper of Martha’s mother. Nadia (Rosal Colon), Jack’s sister, has recently revealed herself to be a lesbian, something Jack can’t accept, and he bars her from having her girlfriend over or revealing her sexual orientation to their parents. Meanwhile, Jack’s older brother, Richie (Leo Minaya) is having considerable problems in his marriage to Rosa (Flor De Liz Perez), who keeps going out to party every night, leaving Richie alone with their newborn child. As if he didn’t have enough worries, Jack has revealed to his doting fiancée Lily (Melissa Fumero) that he’s not quite certain he’s ready for marriage. Surprisingly, Jack’s parents don’t seem to question where it is he gets all his money to support all these people from, though Martha has had heard gossip in the Laundromat about her boy being a drug dealer. Of course, as these situations often necessitate, these issues will come to a dramatic head.
LGBT themed conflicts in the urban Latino community aren’t anything new, and the sibling conflict here may remind some of recent fare like My Brother the Devil (2012) or Quinceanera (2006), and Barrial gets a lot of dramatic mileage from Jack’s conflict with Nadia for the first half of the film. As one could predict, Nadia’s relationship eventually proves to be the much more emotionally stable one upon comparison to what happens in the film’s climax. The well intentioned Jack is an intriguing take on the patriarchal figure, his wishes to be sole provider for his large family, and the eventual predicament this lands him, a shining example of why his antiquated fantasy of family life is no longer functional. Equal rights, equal say, individual contributions, and realistic expectations, would, it goes without saying, have curbed the demise seen here.
Though playing a mostly unlikeable, though well intentioned character, E.J. Bonilla’s performance is one of the major highlights of the film. After a supporting turn in last year’s understated ensemble, Four, he proves to be as equally adept as a lead performer, resembling something of a younger, scrappier Oscar Isaac. Newcomer Rosal Colon, in her feature film debut, is also quite good, as is Leo Minaya in the rather desperate role as Jack’s needy older brother. While not as remarkable to look at, and with Joseph B. Vasquez’s script making use of timely social issues, The House That Jack Built isn’t quite the arresting and innovative drama it could be, but Barrial’s film is definitely worth a look.
Reviewed on June 16 at the 2013 LA Film Festival – Narrative Competition.