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Review: ‘Viva’

The coming-of-age cross-dressing saga you’ve been waiting for.
By David Goldberg

One of the many wonderful reverberating effects of RuPaul’s Drag Race is a new interest in performers who are driven to the brutal, beautiful world of drag. While we may have been given classics like Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, the world has yet to witness the coming-of-age cross-dressing saga it deserves. Miraculously, Viva delivers a lip-syncing gay boy’s Billy Elliot that celebrates the art form without ever making it look easy.

Set in the slums of Havana, Viva chronicles a working-girl’s drag that’s far more low-budget and busted than anything that would make it to the stage at F Bar. But no matter how cheap the hair extensions, the fundamental rules of drag apply all over the world: it’s tough, it’s vicious, and many working queens wouldn’t still be alive without it.

When the slum’s chief drag performer, lovingly known as Mama (Luis Alberto García), advertises an opening in the revue, young hairstylist Jesus (Héctor Medina) seeks to enlist. He sees a career in drag as an escape from the desolation of his lonely life and a way for him to score cash without having to resort to prostitution. He seeks lip-syncing solace in the records his mother left behind when she passed away, and with a nimble frame and feminine features, he doesn’t look too bad doing it.

But when he steps into the heels of his alter ego, Viva, Jesus cannot summon the inner fire required to dazzle a crowd. Mama hesitantly gives him a few more chances to perform, but Viva’s progress is suddenly and violently halted when a handsome older man at the bar punches her in the mouth mid-song. It’s Angel (Jorge Perugorría), Jesus’ long-lost, long-incarcerated father, and he’s returned to move in and set his son straight.

Now sharing his ramshackle one-bedroom apartment with his violent drunk of a father, Jesus spirals precipitously downward. Angel forbids Jesus from returning to Mama and demands that Jesus must accompany him to his old haunt, the boxing gym, where he hopes to teach his son how to be a man.

On Jesus’ gentle, nearly angelic frame, his father’s aggressive hyper-masculinity crushes him like an affliction, and thanks to Molina’s sweet, sensitive performance, it becomes clear that if pushed too far, Jesus could shatter completely. As Angel becomes more demanding of a son he cannot accept, Jesus dips into streetwalking to make ends meet, allowing more older men to attack his spirit and push him to the barbarism that so separates him from his father.

But just when you’ve made up your mind about Angel, he starts bearing sweet resemblances to his son, and you can’t help but hope for an impossible chasm to close between the two. Jesus starts sneaking out again to perform as Viva. Drawing on his budding relationship with his father (however violent and dysfunctional) and the love provided by Mama, Jesus begins to tiptoe out of the husk of an orphan and into manhood.

In Viva, drag cannot save your life, but it can show you a better self to live for. Only by taking responsibility of Jesus’ life can Viva achieve onstage apotheosis, and with a newly restored spirit, she spectacularly carves her place onstage—and immortalizes herself in the eyes of her audience.

With straight celebrities now going at it frequently on The Tonight Show and Lip Sync Battle, concerns have been raised that lip-syncing—itself an art of appropriation—may not be for everybody to appropriate. But the real offense to the drag community is not in the co-opting of lip-syncing itself, but in the lack of passion from some of its performers, namely by hyper-hetero acts like Tim Tebow, Kailey Cuoco, and Kevin Hart, who seem to view the whole shtick as ironic sport.

But for those who can take a song seriously—whether it’s Emma Stone, RuPaul herself, or a beaten-down young man in a Havana slum—mastering the words of a diva with all your heart can change your life. Becoming a queen worthy of the task is a hero’s journey that’s never been told—until now. Behold, Viva has arrived.

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David Odyssey

David Odyssey is a queer journalist and the host of The Luminaries podcast. His work is collected at
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