Film Review: ‘Kiki’

As a spin-off of New York's gay ballroom scene, the Kiki community gets its own 'Paris Is Burning' via this activism-oriented group portrait.

Chi Chi Mizrahi, Christopher Waldorf, Divo Pink Lady, Gia Marie Love, Izana "Zariya" Vidal, Kenneth "Symba McQueen" Soler-Rios, Twiggy Pucci Garcon. (English dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5278598/

It takes balls to come out as gay or transgender in New York City today, especially for teens of color — which is exactly what the so-called “Kiki” scene sprung up to provide. A quarter century after “Paris Is Burning,” the fire still rages with LGBTQ youth, as seen in Sara Jordeno’s brash and empowering feature debut, which celebrates how the Big Apple’s ballroom scene — that vibrant subculture of competitive dance-offs from which “vogueing” was born — has inspired a new generation. Encouragingly enough, these obstreperous African-American teens are carrying the torch for more than just wild drag performances (if anything, the documentary is disappointingly light on actual ball footage); they have also advanced the fight for visibility, equality and all-around inclusion. In a context where “face” matters, “Kiki” introduces a number that audiences won’t soon forget.

Faced with daunting HIV infection statistics that suggest as many as three in five could wind up positive, a handful of politically engaged New Yorkers — including “Kiki” co-writer (and small-town Virginia transplant) Twiggy Pucci Garcon — have found a lively way of engaging with gay and trans adolescents at risk of homelessness, abuse and depression. Basically, by taking a page from the Harlem-based ball culture, they have created a “safe haven” splinter movement centered around the West Village’s Christopher Street Pier (causing all sorts of problems for the older and thoroughly gentrified Stonewall neighborhood, un-addressed here).

Here, flamboyant teens meet and hang out with others like themselves, dividing up into teams (ersatz families known as “houses”) and creatively transforming themselves at Kiki balls — the kid sister to their notorious uptown dance-offs, where a fierce competitive spirit could easily destroy younger performers’ already fragile self-esteem. The word “kiki” itself is gay-slang for a fabulous get-together or party, and though dancers (their moves considerably more spastic than the choreography co-opted by Madonna back in the day) still vie for cash prizes, a typical Kiki ball emphasizes fun and acceptance, interwoven with safe-sex messaging and free STD testing.

With the blessing of house doyens Twiggy and Chi Chi Mizrahi, Jordeno gained intimate access to this world for the better part of three years, observing everything from behind-the-scenes ballroom rehearsals to an ambitious White House visit, where Obama says of LGBT rights, “This is an issue whose time has come.”

And so it has — though “Kiki” makes it clear that marriage equality was “a gay white man initiative,” while the concerns facing trans teens of color remain largely unheard. So, where “Paris Is Burning” was all about “realness” (celebrating the ability to blend, whether that meant passing as a real woman or a non-gay man), “Kiki” emphasizes awareness: These youngsters aren’t masking their gender-blurring identities, as previous generations were obliged to do, but exuberantly asserting their presence — They’re here! They’re queer! Get used to it! — and not just at balls, but in public.

Despite the temptation to celebrate their ballroom alter egos, Jordeno is determined to capture her subjects’ real-world personalities — out of costume, on the streets, appearing as whichever gender they most identify with (or, in Gia Marie Love’s case, before and after her transition). While this approach provides an incomplete picture of the Kiki scene itself, it delves into intimate revelations about homophobia, drug addiction and prostitution. And for any who doubt the urgency, the film even includes a candlelight vigil for a friend lost to HIV. In one particularly candid scene, Symba McQueen (a fixture within the Kiki community, as the events’ boisterous emcee) reveals the story of his own status.

While such testimonials sound distressingly similar to those heard 25 years earlier, the fact that HIV infection rates are on the rise (especially among people of color) and that intolerance remains (inner-city kids lob insults from the sidelines) justifies “Kiki’s” occasionally didactic tone. After all, the film — which, like last year’s “Tangerine,” was developed in collaboration with its subjects, upholding the “Not About Us Without Us” philosophy — wasn’t intended merely to amuse open-minded festival and arthouse audiences, but also to reach lost/closeted adolescents seeking acceptance and encouragement in more conservative corners of the world.

In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement, the film reinforces that credo, privileging each of its young hero(in)es with a striking shot in which they stand, alone or in pairs, staring directly into the camera — and defiantly out at the world. Among her subjects, there are those who seek “gender confirmation” (to use the politically correct term recently featured during the Oscar telecast to describe “The Danish Girl’s” pioneering operation), and others, like Chi Chi, who cross-dress strictly “for the entertainment value.”

Regrettably, “Kiki” seems far less interested in entertainment than activism. On paper, Jordeno’s art-world background might make this project sound like the next “Rize” — in which fashion photog David LaChapelle intercut a profound South Central sociological portrait with stunning krump-style dance footage — but apart from a few staged routines (on a subway platform, in front of a barber shop), “Kiki” proves relatively unexceptional looking, lensed and edited to look like standard reality TV fare. Even so, it explodes with energy, thanks in part to rattlesnake-taut dance tracks from MikeQ and ballroom DJ crew Qween Beat, but mostly from the Kiki kids themselves.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Kiki'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 27, 2016. (Also in Berlin Film Festival.) Running time: 95 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — U.S.-Sweden) A Story and Hard Working Movies production, in co-production with Sveriges Television, Film Vast, with support from Swedish Film Institute, Film i Vasterbotten, New York State Council of the Arts, Swedish Arts Grants Committee and Art Matters Foundation. Produced by Annika Rogell, Lori Cheatle. Executive producer, Tobias Janson. Co-producers, Daniel Pynnonen, Emelie Persson.

Crew: Directed by Sara Jordeno. Screenplay, Jordeno, Twiggy Pucci Garcon. Camera (color, HD), Naiti Gamez; editor, Rasmus Ohlander; music supervisor, MikeQ; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Tom Paul; associate producer, Goran Hugo Olsson; second unit camera, Iskra Valtcheva, Lucas Millard.

With: Chi Chi Mizrahi, Christopher Waldorf, Divo Pink Lady, Gia Marie Love, Izana "Zariya" Vidal, Kenneth "Symba McQueen" Soler-Rios, Twiggy Pucci Garcon. (English dialogue)

More Film

  • Dan Trachtenberg

    Tom Holland's 'Uncharted' Movie Loses Director

    Dan Trachtenberg has exited the director’s chair for Sony’s “Uncharted” movie starring Tom Holland, with the studio taking meetings with top filmmakers and production starting early next year. The studio confirmed Trachtenberg’s departure Thursday. It also said Sony-based PlayStation Productions — headed by Asad Qizilbash and Carter Swan — had come on to produce alongside [...]

  • Participant Taps Anikah McLaren, Robert Kessel

    Participant Taps Anikah McLaren, Robert Kessel to Head Film Department

    Participant Media has named industry veterans Anikah McLaren and Robert Kessel as co-heads of the company’s film department with the titles of executive vice president. Both executives will report together to Participant CEO David Linde, who made the announcement Thursday. McLaren joins Participant having most recently served as a production executive for Fox Searchlight Pictures. [...]

  • 'The Son' Review: Bosnian Family Drama

    Sarajevo Film Review: 'The Son'

    It is a mixed blessing to be born in the aftermath of a war. On the one hand, you never have to experience the terror and suffering your parents did; on the other, you grow up with your own personal crises forever made to feel smaller by comparison. That, at least, is the frustration driving [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Box Office: Jennifer Lopez 'Hustlers' Heading for $25 Million Launch

    STX Entertainment’s “Hustlers,” a comedic thriller about strip-club employees seeking revenge, is expected to earn $25 million when it opens on Sept. 13, according to early tracking. The movie — starring Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer, Cardi B and Lizzo — will debut alongside Warner Bros.’ “The Goldfinch.” The drama, based on [...]

  • AMC TheatresShop signs, Los Angeles, America

    AMC Theatres Lays Off 35 Corporate Staffers

    AMC Entertainment has laid off 35 corporate staffers and will not fill an additional 15 open jobs. The Kansas-based chain made the announcement Thursday as part of a previously announced “profit improvement plan” intended to achieve operating and administrative efficiencies. AMC, which operates more than 10,000 movie screens, had disclosed the plan on Aug. 8 [...]

  • Ann Sarnoff Warner Bros

    Ann Sarnoff Formally Takes Reins of Warner Bros. as CEO

    The Ann Sarnoff era at Warner Bros. has begun. Sarnoff formally took the reins as Warner Bros. chair-CEO on Thursday, two months after she was appointed to the post. Sarnoff told employees in a memo that she has been impressed by the company’s track record during the past year amid a period of upheaval for [...]

  • Take Me Somewhere Nice review

    Ena Sendijarevic on Migration, Identity and the Question of Belonging

    Bosnian filmmaker Ena Sendijarević had an auspicious debut with “Import,” a short film which world premiered in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight in 2016. Drawing on her own family’s personal history, the Amsterdam-based director crafted an idiosyncratic tale about a family of Bosnian refugees trying to make a new home in the Netherlands. With her feature debut, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content