SCATTERED IMMIGRANTS: THE SACRED POWER OF LA FAMILIA IN “FAST & FURIOUS”

It’s tough being a film snob and loving a movie like Fast Five. There’s a lot of flak involved. It’s never an easy conversation — at least not from my end. Lots of people see a franchise as ostensibly silly as the Fast and Furious series and all of a sudden, as if it were some kind of physiological prerogative, their lips curl up over their teeth and reveal a mouth full of snark and irony: “You love theFast series…? You sure about that?” Even more disheartening are the people — or rather, “haters” — who come at me with complaints and generalities of how the cars overshadow the movies’ flesh-and-blood characters, while, in the same breath, admitting that they’ve never seen any of the movies.

I love this franchise. I love its sentiment. I love what it claims to evoke, which is — as purely as can be — a declaration of family and bonding. I don’t know too many modern action flicks — or old ones, for that matter — that have so openly advocated family as the Fast series has. And it’s not the American-bred fantasy of pappa, momma, son, and daughter that they advocate — the nuclear family — nope: what they’re promoting is a different kind of American family — a family I’m much more accustomed to:

The immigrant family.

I was only a year-old when my parents — both in their mid-20s, both terribly Soviet in their upbringing — decided to uproot everything they had — including my older brother and me — and move to a country where they didn’t know the language, didn’t have any jobs lined up, and where family was a strange and moral institution based on circumstance and proximity rather than blood and faith.

I can’t even imagine the stress or frustration of living in a land riddled in indecipherable gobbledygook. Seriously! Two kids, one of which was a baby, no jobs, no English, no fixed home — how the fuck would you react under such conditions? And, again, don’t forget: you’re only 25-years-old. Do youremember making a lot of genius decisions in your 20s? I know I don’t. I have absolutely no fucking clue what kind of decisions I would’ve made if I were ever lumped with a pair of brats who were learning a native language quicker than me.

I wouldn’t be surprised if my parents felt alienated by New York. Lonely even. As if the entire world spun on without them, as if they were stuck somewhere far behind along the earth’s orbit, waiting for this piece of rock to come back around and scoop them up. They worked with their hands. They kept it tangible. If they couldn’t understand the language, the thoughts, the philosophies, the unspoken rules, then they were gonna feel their way through their time here. My mom worked as a cleaner and cocktail waitress that served old white dudes at an underground casino held in the basement of a local synagogue on the Sabbath, while my dad found a job at a nearby nursing home as a maintenance dude who spent his downtime interacting with the Russian-speaking oldies, sifting through their words for familiar sounds of Odessa.

Thankfully, it wasn’t long before my parents found others like them. Other immigrants. “Aunties” and “Uncles” who weren’t really my Aunties and Uncles. That’s the beauty of New York City: no matter where you’re from, there’re more people like you. That’s why there’re so many ethnographically concentrated neighborhoods here, like Chinatown and Greenpoint and Brighton Beach. We find our own people and assemble. We find a community to combat the dread of isolation; to cope with the shock and stress of transplanting your family to a culturally bizarre land.

Most of my cousins were still in Odessa when we first moved here — and some in India living in a Russian expat community with parents working for Soviet industry — whatever that may mean — which meant I, too, had to create my own community, my own family. These are the friends I made in high school and in college. None of them are actually Ukrainian, but still, they’re the people I go to for consolation whenever I’m hampered with grievances. These are the people who cabbed it back to the Bronx with me to make sure my drunk ass returned home in one piece. These are the people I invite to my backyard for BBQs. These are my people. This was — and is — Mi Familia.

Watching Fast Five, I can’t help but find all its allusions to La Familia sincere. Not only sincere, but familiar, too. Despite it’s smattering of low-angle booty shots and tautly worn muscle shirts, despite the cars, the sun, the fun, the bullets and mayhem, Fast Five feels to me like an all-enveloping Papa Bear Hug. And I’ll admit: when I went to see Fast Five opening day I was hella ready to hiss and boo and snort through my nose upon arriving to the theater. I was ready to be that New Yorker. I was there purely to whisper back and forth, to scoff, to roll my eyes. I had my shields up, ready to deflect the movie with my Bronx-bred cynicism. But I couldn’t. Something clicked, and I was disarmed. Completely.

Dom and Brian and the gang are characters that have been exiled from their own home. As you see in Furious Six, all Dom (Vin Diesel) wants is to return to Los Angeles. All he wants to do is light the grill, crack open a pack of beers, and clink a toast to his family. It’s worth noting that Dom and Mia (Jordanna Brewster) are the only two blood relatives in the franchise. Everyone else has been adopted by Papa Dom. Even when Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) — a character who initially plays foil to Dom and his coterie of ruffians — loses his crew in an ambush, Dom doubles back to save his former enemy in order to welcome him into the familia fold. No questions asked.

These characters are runaways, people without a home. Sure, they bond over cars and adrenaline, but they also crave the company of like-minded individuals who understand their brand of shorthand. And sometimes they yell and spew at one another, sometimes they trade blows, but at the end of the day, they all want a home. And maybe that’s not necessarily LA — even though its tangible and can be pointed to on a map — maybe it’s the camaraderie that acts as port-of-call. No matter where they’re running to, home is wherever they’ve managed to re-assemble.

Living in a culture of cinema where too many “art house” films prefer to revel in the dissolution of the family and/or marital unit — Gone Girl, Force Majeure,Foxcatcher, August: Osage County, etc — it’s nice to see a movie that unaffectedly promotes the idea of a functional family. What’s more is that you see the love and adoration spill past the frame and into the cast’s and crew’s personal lives. When Paul Walker died last year, the entire Fast Familiaregrouped to honor the man as a gentle and giving soul who was worth sharing a beer with. And it wasn’t for promotional purposes either. (I truly doubt any of the PR guys were so Machiavellian about it.)

Hell! just days ago Vin Diesel paid tribute to his lost fratello by naming his new baby girl Pauline.

There are days when I’m stuck out in the Bronx, ways away from my friends — my second familia scattered throughout New York: in Astoria or Bed-Stuy or Long Island — when the conditions are too capricious to venture out, when the sky descends gray and drizzly and creeps in through the windows, a debilitating loneliness closing in against my walls. These days are rarer than they used to be, but still, they come. And when they do, I pop my Fast Five disk in the blu-ray and settle down. I breathe and remember that, despite the distance, they’re there. I have my own Fast Familia to count on.

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