Even the fiercest queens on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” aren’t put through the wringer half as rigorously as the twiggy protagonist of “Viva” — an aspiring Havana drag artiste who must survive severe poverty, prostitution, parental abuse and family tragedy atop the strain of lip-syncing for his life. Irish helmer Paddy Breathnach’s kind-hearted, fleet-footed Cuban diversion doesn’t wallow in such woe, however. If anything, this understandably Oscar-shortlisted crowdpleaser skirts the sharpest edges of its hard-luck tale, playing softball with matters of homosexuality and prejudice; heavily telegraphed melodrama, meanwhile, provides short-cut solutions to complex character conflicts. Like its eponymous stage performer, however, “Viva” appealingly makes up for a coy approach with gutsy, grabby follow-through on the high notes.
“Why is everyone on this island addicted to f—ing drama?” someone wails midway through “Viva” — though it seems unlikely that everyday life in Cuba trades in quite as many soap-operatic twists of fate as Breathnach’s film does in 100 confrontation-heavy minutes. It’s a line that betrays an outsider’s perspective, from the writer if not the speaker.
Irish actor-screenwriter Mark O’Halloran, who penned Lenny Abrahamson’s Eire-set features “Adam & Paul” and “Garage,” can’t quite bring a tangy native vernacular to proceedings, though he does observe the peeling, flaking streets of Havana with a sensitive tourist’s appreciation. “It’s the most beautiful slum in the world,” one character remarks — another line that doesn’t sound entirely like something a son of the city would say, though all credit to O’Halloran and Breathnach (not to mention the lovely, glitter-and-dust imagery of cinematographer Cathal Watters) for pursuing that beauty.
However qualified, the realism of “Viva” reps a marked change of pace for Breathnach from the heightened horror exploits of “Shrooms” and “Freakdog,” or even the rollicking comedy of his breakout feature “I Went Down”; indeed, about the closest connection that can be drawn with his previous filmography is a tonsorial theme shared with 2001’s Josh Hartnett misfire “Blow Dry.” Alone in the world following his mother’s death, self-sufficient gay twentysomething Jesus (winsome newcomer Hector Medina) scrapes together a living as a hairdresser to his neighborhood’s similarly destitute womenfolk; by night, he supplements that meager income styling wigs for the performers at a local drag-revue dive run by formidable queen bee Mama (a marvelous Luis Alberto Garcia).
As Medina’s pure, wonderstruck expression handily shorthands for viewers in the film’s opening shots, Jesus would rather be wearing the wigs himself. Having inherited from his mother a worshipful adoration of ugly-crying Latin songbirds, he dreams of taking the stage despite neither walking the walk nor talking the talk: “They can see her c— from Cienfuegos,” Mama’s acidic underling Cindy (Luis Manuel Alvarez) mutters when Jesus first tries out at the club in the gawky, brunette-beehived guise of his alter ego, Viva. Contrary to expectations of a story set in this polyester underworld — the intricate cultural and psychological specifics of which are only passingly illustrated here — “Viva” goes pretty light on such bitchery. Jesus has a heftier problem on his hands, anyway, when his pugilistic ex-con father Angel (Jorge Perugorria), who abandoned him as an infant, unexpectedly shows up on the scene.
Grudgingly accepting of his son’s homosexuality yet violently intolerant of his adventures in drag, Angel bullishly moves into Jesus’ scabby apartment and lays down the law. The true reason for his return is about as predictable as the bittersweet peacemaking that haltingly occurs between father and son: Tensions alternately flare and are doused by unconditional love in the film’s somewhat squashy midsection, though the rapport built between Medina and Perugorria is honest and mutually attentive. It’s a formulaic prelude to a bawl that nonetheless nets the required, mascara-streaking outcome through sheer generosity of spirit.
If O’Halloran’s power-of-being-yourself fable is finally a little easier to feel than it is to believe, that’s due less to the generic clichés that are included than the individual details that are left out: Though he works part-time (and in tastefully masked close-up) as a rent boy, Jesus appears to have no sexual history or urges of his own. For a film that otherwise evocatively samples the sweat-soaked surfaces of Havana’s seamier side streets, nightspots and boxing gyms, “Viva” is surprisingly shy of carnality.
Palatably presented as they are, it’s in the drag-club scenes that “Viva” really sings — or at least, like its primped and powdered performers, vigorously mimes. That’s in large part thanks to the galvanizing presence of Garcia’s Mama, a tough-loving surrogate parent to Jesus who gives the film’s father-son deliberations a necessary twist of lime. Still, the routines — too briefly glimpsed outside of Viva’s increasingly confident, chest-beating diva stylings — are shot and cut with a hot neon crackle that breaks through the cozier trappings of Breathnach’s style.
For English-speaking audiences, it might seem a curious error that the Spanish-language songs themselves go untranslated by the subtitlers: Viva’s showpiece numbers convey the authentic, gut-level personal expression that the best drag artists can find in someone else’s face, voice and lyrics. For viewers who can’t decipher the words behind the anguish, on the other hand, it’s truly a case of the singer, not the song.