Beginning as a colorful documentary about the Puerto Rican transgender community, candidly showcasing nine very different subjects, “Mala Mala” slowly morphs into a celebration of solidarity and collective activism without ever losing sight of its likable protagonists. Though the featured players’ problems and experiences are similar, their aspirations vary widely, from dreams of flashily wowing as beauty queens to hopes of quietly “passing” in the supermarket. Highly entertaining but never reductive or exploitative, Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini’s well-crafted feature debut will delight LGBT auds while attracting crossover fans.
Except for Paxx Moll, a woman who identifies as a man, the films’ transgender subjects are transitioning from male to female. Some, like April Carrion, Queen Bee Ho and Alberic Pradoc, are simply drag queens, living as men by day and performing as women by night. They seem totally at ease with that duality, utterly unself-conscious even in mid-transformation, when they might be sporting heavy five o’clock shadow and long blond tresses. While Pradoc has undergone surgeries to enhance his cheekbones and adores splashing in bubble baths, he has no desire to become a woman; indeed, during the course of the film. he becomes increasingly disillusioned with his feminine “Zahara” persona, deciding instead to embrace corporate law. Carrion shoots to semi-stardom in the U.S. via an appearance on RuPaul’s show, while Ho, whose reputation grows locally, chafes at the narrowness of Puerto Rican celebrity.
But it’s not just female impersonators who fervently pursue glamour. Denise “Sandy” Rivera, who occupies a near-starring role in the film and earns her living, as do many of the girls, as a prostitute, feels that since she still sports an organ “that men don’t want,” she needs to be extra-beautiful to attract clients. Ivana Fred, a quasi-official spokesperson for the transgender community who makes guest appearances on various TV shows, has labored long to create her curvaceous body through gender-reassignment surgery in Ecuador (none being available in Puerto Rico) and daily exercise (picturesquely framed by the sea). Certainly Fred’s attractiveness has proved central to her success.
But in a discussion between Fred and Soraya Santiago Solla, a 65-year-old Puerto Rican sex-change pioneer, a distinction is made between those who, like Solla, profoundly identify as women, and those who, like Fred, want to be Barbie dolls. Advancing age, Solla asserts, will separate the true women from the adulation seekers, since no one wants to be a middle-aged Barbie.
Sophia Voines and Samantha Close (“S” names apparently popular in the trans community) have learned to accept their less-than-glamorous looks. Voines, a fully transitioned, transplanted New Yorker, simply wants to be treated like an ordinary woman. Close, whose poverty drove her to experiment with destructive black-market hormones, has had to suspend her transformation, defiantly demanding that the world take her as she is.
The filmmakers forge a feeling of community throughout. Scenes at the Doll House, where the drag queens strut their stuff, quickly dispel any sense of separation between performers and audience. A long opening sequence, shot from inside Fred’s car as she hands out free condoms and lubricants to the “working girls,” stresses the closeness of this group. So when they decide to actively militate for equal rights, spearheaded by Rivera — who makes no secret of her desire, shared by many, to be productively employed in a less demeaning job than prostitution — the movement resonates like an extension of an already existing solidarity. The filmmakers follow their subjects as they testify before the legislature, organize under the “Butterfly Trans Foundation” banner and march to the steps of the state capital, leading to the film’s surprisingly upbeat finale.
The film is sandwiched between a pre-credits montage that quickly rifles through startling drag acts and a closing long take of a brilliant solo dance by a certain Queen Amor (otherwise absent from the film). It’s a testament to the intimacy, candor and lack of moralism established by the docu that flamboyance and quiet soul searching can amicably share the spotlight.
The varied locations, from neon-lit stages to domestic interiors to crowded protest marches, under Adam Uhl’s expert lensing, never look gaudy or garish; nor do the trans subjects who traverse them.