By Laurie Coker
A parent should not have to bury a child. In 2013, Israel ‘Reefa’ Hernandez’ parents put their son to rest. Reefa, starring Tyler Dean Flores, chronicles the story of the wrongful, called “accidental,” death of Hernandez at the hands of the Miami police. This relevant tale plays it safe in many ways but its message is clear. ‘Reefa’ is evidence of what crowd-funding can do when a story should be told and writer/director Jessica Kavana Dornbusch brings a special and striking film to the screen.
Flores plays ‘Reefa’, a graffiti artist, and basically a good kid – humble, determined, loving, and passionate about his craft. He spends time with friends and skating with his model girlfriend Frankie. He is a good son, who respects and his parents who struggle to take his passion for art seriously. He seems to love life and his art drives him. ‘Reefa’s’ parents, sister and he work hard, lay low, and wait for their green cards so they no longer have to worry about deportation. But ‘Reefa’ still graffiti paints – a risky (and illegal) act and a particular power-hungry cop comes around and harasses Israel and his friends, intimidating them in the streets, and making his partner nervous with his hostile, arrogant attitude.
Kavana Dornbusch takes a slightly soft-handed approach, focusing on Israel and his family and friends and not on the event that we know will come. She provides a foundation for understanding the hearts and minds of the key players. She offers subtle means of storytelling, where we are drawn into pivotal moments as the events unfold that lead up to Israel’s confrontation with police. While much of the films is transparent, a slow burn of suspense permeates under the surface of each scene.
Flores deserves accolades for his portrayal of Israel – a sweet, soft-spoken, diminutive, dynamic, and driven young man. At 18, he has entire life planned and the talent to back his dreams. Flores plays him with charm and grace and I imagine, Hernandez’s family and friends appreciate his depiction. Ricardo Chavira, as Officer Morales, epitomizes megalomania and some sort of underlying resentment. Morales, like Israel, immigrated (he from Cuba – Israel’s family from Columbia), and in this, one would expect empathy, but Morales instead, is convinced that this group of immigrants disrespects and takes the county (and “his city of Miami”) for granted. The graffiti drives him to distraction and he goes after ‘Reefa’ to send a message. The outcome of Morales’ actions shocks, especially in light of current similar cases in the news.
Dornbusch and the ensemble work of the actors portraying the Hernandez family, guided by the always excellent José Zúñiga, as the patriarch. The cast of young people shine, and as noted, so does Flores’ the extremely natural breakthrough performance as Israel. Dornbusch beautifully captures each sequence with artful use of color and light, not indicative of a small budget film like Reefa. It earns a solid B in the gradebook.