Movie Review - Viva

Ireland's entry for the 88th Academy Awards did make the Oscar shortlist last year but failed to get the nomination. It was crafted by Irish filmmakers but it's set in Havana, Cuba, and is all in Spanish. One might detect a disconnect but regardless from where the filmmakers hail, there is an authenticity here. It could be because the film has cast its actors very well. The two leads give very great performances. The filmmakers seem to use actual locations, most likely in Cuba. Not much of the culture of Cuba is on display but there is a strong enough sense of place. In terms of story, there is a slight familiarity, tackling queer themes and embracing queer characters, focusing on the relationship between a son and his father.

Héctor Medina stars as Jesús Gutierrez, a teenage boy who works as a hairdresser. He does the heads of old ladies as well as the wigs of drag queens, specifically the drag queens of a particular nightclub that features regular musical performances, typical lip-sync acts. Jesús is a beautiful, sweet and quiet, young man. He's tall and svelte, somewhat effeminate and decides to audition to become a drag queen himself.

He continually reminds people he needs the extra money that performing as a drag queen provides. That's the ostensible reason. It takes him a while to admit that his reasons are really because he loves performing in drag. He has some kind of passion for it or it gives him some kind of thrill, but he's not like the character of Adam in Magic Mike (2012). Doing drag doesn't become like a drug that threatens to destroy him spiritually.

Jorge Perugorría co-stars as Angel Gutierrez, an aging and ailing boxer who was in prison. He gets released and returns home to his son, Jesús. Angel is a big, beefy and very masculine guy who objects to his son performing drag in the club. Despite a very aggressive and even possibly abusive encounter, it's clear that Angel loves his son. He's tough on him for sure, but there is a love there that even Jesús recognizes and can't ultimately deny.

It's odd because Angel doesn't seem to be wholly homophobic. He doesn't understand it, but he doesn't hate his son by any real stretch. Angel simply objects to his son performing in drag in his club. The question is if Jesús will continue to follow his father's wishes. The problem is that Jesús needs money not only for himself but also for his father and his healthcare. Jesús isn't qualified to do anything else, so if he can't do drag, he turns to prostitution.

Written by Mark O'Halloran, the financial need of Jesús and his limited options never come to a head with his father's ultimatum or objections in any significant way. It's a dramatic point that dangles in this film but never drops or hits in a way that matters. There are some dramatic points involving Jesús' sister, Cecilia, and her sexy boxer boyfriend, Javier, that too never hit. They're points of contention but just points. They're never part of an arc, or at least an arc that felt connected.

This movie does handle the relationship between Jesús and Angel fairly well. It starts out tense between the two. Jesús feels like Angel is being controlling and oppressive, but Jesús also feels a bond that goes unexplained other than it's just a natural inclination a son has toward his father. It helps that Angel talks to Jesús in an easygoing and open way. He shares intimate things, which allow Jesús to know his father. Eventually, Jesús develops compassion for Angel.

It mostly is just a father-and-son, hangout movie. The two always have meals together. They go out walking together. It's awkward at first but the two quickly become comfortable with one another. It's not the first film to focus on a father-and-son who are Latino or Hispanic where the father has to learn to accept his queer child and the child has to learn to be oneself and be oneself in full light in front of his father. La Mission (2009) and Gun Hill Road (2011) are the two other examples that immediately come to mind.

The ailment of the father felt like a narrative device that was probably unnecessary if not a bit clichéd. I also was never really convinced of Jesús' desire to do drag and perform in the club. Yet, there is a tenderness and a sweetness that's more appreciable here than in those aforementioned films. This film is also told through the child's point-of-view rather than the father's, which is the often-used point-of-view.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 39 mins.
Available now on Netflix Watch Instant.


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