Viva: Same Old Song, by David Bax
With its respectable look at quotidian life in Havana and its sober, handheld aesthetic, Paddy Breathnach’s Viva is a handsome and heartfelt effort. Nevertheless, after competently establishing its setting and characters, it balks at doing anything particularly interesting with them, fizzling out instead into conventional melodramatic bromides.
Hector Medina stars as Jesus, a young man who does hair for a troupe of drag performers and has only just started to perform himself, under the name Viva. As an only child with a deceased mother and an imprisoned father, this group of gay men and trans women serve as Jesus’ de facto family. Until, that is, his father, Angel (Jorge Perugorria), is released and takes up residence in Jesus’ apartment. Soon, Angel is dictating what the son he hasn’t seen since the age of three is allowed to do, which absolutely does not include putting on a dress and lip-synching in front of an audience.
Viva‘s screenplay (by Mark O’Halloran) cleverly introduces the performers as they snipe behind each other’s backs and yell in each other’s faces. It only gradually dawns on us, then, that these are familial squabbles among people who love and depend on one another almost unconditionally. They are a community but, even more than that, they are each other’s lives.
Angel, on the other hand, was a boxer before he killed a man in a bar fight and found himself locked up. Early on, Breathnach hints at a juxtaposition of these two worlds, boxing and drag, though his bias in favor of the latter prevents him from following through on that premise. Still, both vocations concern participants who come to define themselves through some kind of physical performance. They may have wildly different definitions of masculinity but Angel the washed up fighter and Viva the budding drag queen have more in common than they may realize.
Viva‘s late-developing conflict comes when Jesus becomes so invested in the approval of the father he never knew that he begins to suppress and misrepresent his true self in order to further this newfound connection. As a two-person family, they can only be happy on Angel’s terms.
This is where Breathnach and O’Halloran falter. Having developed for themselves a complex psychological dilemma, they ultimately opt for the easy way out. Viva asks questions about whether people unite through bloodlines or out of necessity or for their own best interests and then it cheats on the answer.