Viva, out Tuesday on streaming services from Magnolia Pictures, tells the story of Jesus (Héctor Medina), a Cuban boy torn between his budding drag career as the titular Viva and his deadbeat father’s macho dictates. In many ways, it’s a familiar gay coming-of-age fairy tale. But from the film’s gloomy, no-frills portrait of drag life to its unusual backstory—it was filmed in Havana with a Cuban cast but created by Irish writer and director Paddy Breathnach—Viva is just odd enough to breathe new life into the tired “If you can’t love yourself” queer movie template. And if it makes viewers cringe through a few sappy moments, that’s a small price to pay for its refreshing sincerity.
Here’s what I mean by sincerity: A few minutes into the film, Jesus pleads desperately with drag mother Mama (Luis Alberto García), begging for a chance to join Mama’s troupe of ragtag queens. “[Drag is] strong. It’s pretty. Right? I want something for myself, Mama. I got nothing for myself. No one,” Jesus pleads. The sentiment is unoriginal, melodramatic—yet it wins Mama’s heart because Jesus delivers it so directly and with such vulnerability. Mama may roll her eyes, having seen it all before, but she can’t help giving Jesus a chance. And viewers will do the same. We have seen these characters reiterated in countless films, but rarely do they seem so deeply realized.
A few years back, my father asked a question that has stuck with me: “How many movies do I need to see about a man putting on a dress and having a great time?” I resented the tone, but I still hear his words whenever I watch a film about drag or drag-like behavior. Because while there are some masterpieces that truly capture drag—films that make drag queens seem present, human—the most visible productions stick to the basics: boas, Adam’s apples, and cat fights. I’m a drag queen myself, so I love classics like Birdcage and To Wong Fu, and one time I sat through Connie and Carla. But they’re not about drag. They’re about what drag would be like if it were as fun to do as it is to watch. In these imaginary renderings, drag queens paint their faces upon waking. They drive convertibles with their wigs on. They even pay their bills. It’s rare to see a film that actually resonates with my experience of day-to-day life as queen.
Viva is different: It depicts a crew of penniless queens who ply their trade only at the end of a long day, and only in the protective darkness of a seedy Havana club. In this setting, drag looks like labor instead of fantasy—the queens work constantly to maintain their few well-worn wigs, and as Jesus trains to become a diva, he generally fails to master makeup, lip-synching, and choreography. There are few breakthroughs, few moments of glamour, and even fewer standing ovations. The focus of each performance is simple: Step into the audience without being molested or punched and return with a few folded bills. There’s no room for high art. The audience would rather see someone drop into splits than hear a ballad.
In his review for the New York Times, Stephen Holden writes that Viva is a “terrific dancer who, given the chance to perform, displays the charisma of a natural star.” But in fact, the opposite is true—Viva fails in every way that real queens fail when they begin their careers: She’s stiff, hesitant, too fascinated by her own affect. And that failure is what sets Viva apart from other productions of its ilk. The rehearsal montages end not with artistic triumph, but with bigger and more embarrassing flops.
So Viva’s strength is not in its storyline, but in its detailed observations, its verisimilitude. There is something arresting about the specificity of the images Breathnach has captured: an audience member’s hand fumbling to stuff a bill into Viva’s dress; neck hair visible beneath a wig; a queen’s foal-like stance when she takes the stage for the first time.
I watched Viva with some trepidation, aware that this tale of Havana was being told by an outsider. Breathnach was inspired to make Viva after he saw some drag shows in Havana. “A sheet hung up in a suburban backyard and a single light bulb created a theatre and a world of dreams out of nothing,” he writes in a director’s statement. “It was intoxicating.” Given his relation to the subject, I knew there was a risk that Breathnach might make an exotic caricature of Cuba and its queens. But with its gritty, “naturalistic cinema” style, Viva handles each of its characters with tenderness. Apart from a goofy gigolo who offers some moments of comic relief, everyone is allowed a captivating human dimension. So even when the film reaches a predictable climax of emotions between father and son, you will hang with the action until the final credits roll.