Terminology involving gender identity can be complicated, so let’s start there. Viva is a movie about drag queens: The characters identify as men in daily life, but dress as women when lip-syncing to torch songs onstage. These particular characters are Cuban, so maybe it would be preferable to use the local lingo and call them transformistas. This matters, because understanding and acceptance is Viva’s primary concern, which doubles as its strength and limitation. The movie was made not by Cubans, but by two Irishmen, director Paddy Breathnach (I Went Down) and screenwriter Mark O’Halloran (who previously collaborated with Room’s Lenny Abrahamson on Adam & Paul and Garage), and it frequently comes across as a deeply compassionate, heavily researched PSA.
As it begins, the young protagonist, Jesus (Héctor Medina), is still very much in his cocoon, transformista-wise. He works backstage at the nightclub, prepping wigs and costumes for Mama (Luis Alberto García), the joint’s benevolent dictator and star performer, and barely scrapes by. In an effort to make more money (and avoid sex work), Jesus auditions when a spot opens up, and Mama agrees to give him a chance. Rechristened Viva, he gets off to a shaky start, but quickly discovers a new self-confidence in drag, as well as a feeling of belonging. Until, that is, he’s sucker-punched during one of his routines by Angel (Jorge Perugorría, star of the Cuban queer-cinema classic Strawberry And Chocolate), a middle-aged bruiser who turns out to be Jesus’ father. Angel left Jesus’ mother (now deceased) when Jesus was 3, and has spent much of his time since in prison. Now, he moves back into his old house and orders his son to stop performing. Sex work, which can at least be done on the sly, becomes the only financial avenue available.
Perugorría is such a terrific, soulful actor that he makes Viva’s predictable dramatic trajectory—disapproving dad slowly grows to accept his child’s differences, while the kid gradually learns to forgive his father’s lifelong absence—seem a bit less moldy. Still, O’Halloran’s touch is not subtle (one subplot involves Jesus being asked for help by a pregnant friend whose boyfriend has split from her, giving him a chance to relive his infancy from another perspective), and a late-breaking revelation about Angel is so rushed that it feels downright cynical. The movie truly comes to life in its drag sequences, during which Medina (who looks fabulous in an Audrey Hepburn sort of way) genuinely does seem to transform into another person entirely. Breathnach says he was inspired to make Viva after visiting a similar club in Havana around 1996; he might have done better to shoot a documentary about transformistas, rather than commission a bundle of tolerance clichés occasionally interrupted by stirring musical theater.