A 38-year-old man's coming-of-age story, the earnest "Ranchero" reaches for thematic resonance and ends up only cliché-deep. Its country-versus-city dynamic is well expressed visually but hobbled by a flat-footed scenario and mostly unconvincing performances.
Brian Eric Johnson's on-the-nose screenplay finds middle-aged innocent Jesse (Roger Gutierrez) setting out from the Sacramento-area cattle ranch where he's worked most of his life. If there's a fire in him, it's a low-burning flame; mainly he's at loose ends after the death of his Mexico-born ranch-hand father, whose decency the script proclaims repeatedly. Representing the other end of the spectrum is childhood friend Tom (screenwriter Johnson), with whom Jesse connects upon his arrival in Los Angeles.
A would-be openhearted adventure quickly becomes ensnared in drugs and guns and the threats of a very mean pimp (Danny Trejo, chewing up the scenery). But the big city isn't all bad. The movie's strongest scenes involve the deepening emotional bond between Jesse and a neighbor with a dark secret (Christina Woods, delivering the only consistently compelling performance).
Director Richard Kaponas situates the action in a seldom-filmed side of low-rent L.A., a place that can look like an under-populated wasteland. And Michael Bratkowski's cinematography captures the terrain's harsh sun and midday shadows. But as tough as "Ranchero" wants to be, it's too hackneyed to give its evocative final moments their intended dramatic weight.