There have been many films about the courage to be yourself despite parental pressures and societal norms from "Billy Elliott" (male ballet) "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert", "To Wong Foo" (female impersonators) and "The Full Monty" (male strippers) just to name a few.
As Jesus, the actor Medina is first rate. His alternately inquisitive and spacey expressions tell all there is to know. This is a boy who wants to be placed in another world: one of drama, pathos, color and light. Instead, he is immersed in the brown gray crumbling dwellings of Havana where the rain pours from rusty pummelled roofs tinted in ochre and brown.
He has no money and spends his time wandering from place to place drifting in record stores to buy used records.
One gets a very visceral feeling from this youngster who glides from place to place, a detached observer, a camera, recording all he sees while immersed in endless, incomprehensible macho noise.
If that were all the film contained, it would have been enough: a picaresque journey of characters and sensations, all while a young boy practices and performs in the confined and repressed air of an unvarnished Cuba.
Instead we get Angel, (Jorge Perugorria) a boxer and Jesus' physically violent father who pays a visit and decides to stay with him after he hits him.
Angel is as sullen, grouchy and as belligerent as you would expect and doesn't have much to say. He shuffles about and barks. Angel tries to rule with an iron hand and shadowboxes, but he is clearly past his prime.
All this in under the rainy ceiling of clouds containing all the dinginess that is Cuba.
The only brightness that Jesus looks forward to are his meetings with Mama (Luis Alberto Garcia) an older drag performer, who inspires him on stage.
Jesus has a neighbor-acquaintance Cecilia (Laura Aleman) who pressures him to use his bed for her date and then turns nasty.
Just when Jesus feels a bit of sun, (onstage as well as outside), clouds once more darken the sky.
What was once pensive and thoughtful becomes heavy with needless melodrama and formulaic episodes with loud voices: an over the hill boxer, the caring theatrical mentor and the sassy friend. We half expect Jesus to yell "Leave me alone! Don't push me!"
And he all but does.
When his father nudges Viva on the chin as if to say "There you go kid!" we expect it.
The film would have been better served if it had dispensed with these predictable scenes and just stayed with Jesus, merely recording what he observes.
Less is more.
Surrealistically, there is one short montage showing a body being made for burial paired with Viva putting on makeup for a show as if the boy is reclaiming cosmetics, transforming them in a new positive condition. Although morbid, it proves poignant. If only there were more of these notes rather than a slide into formula.
"Viva" is a mixed bag. Hector Medina is enigmatic and entrancing, but placed up against his charmless father, it all becomes too much of a dark comparsa between father and son.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org