Hedwig’s inch has nothing on the narcoleptic Marieta’s 20 centimeters but she does have a better singing voice. That’s all right because Marieta doesn’t aspire to cut an album, only to transform her male genitalia and reconstruct it into that of a female, and yet she dreams of dancing and singing in Technicolor musical numbers.
Director Ramón Salazar doesn’t give these flights of fancy a proper justification, but he understands the freedom pop expression affects, validating these numbers through his liberating use of widescreen space. When Marieta is awake, the camera stays close on her, illustrating her frustration with the world; in dreams, the camera pulls back, relishing in the neon-light electric of splashy revues of queer-friendly classics like Madonna’s “True Blue,” Queen’s “I Want To Break Free,” and Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want To Be With You.”
These vignettes are inspired, intriguingly redolent of Marieta’s real-world disquiet, but her anxieties are never so deep—like her feather-light relationship to the hunky supermarket stock boy who takes fondly to her dick—that we ever believes she won’t come out on top. Infectious as her dreams may be, there’s never much at stake for Marieta to make the film truly gripping.
Salazar’s humor is also cruder and less affecting than Pedro Almodóvar’s, but his love for women is touching: The film’s best scene is a fateful encounter between Spanish cinema’s homeliest divas (Monica Cervera, as Marieta, and Rossy de Palma, as a fellow sex worker who’s been around the block one too many times), and Marieta’s apartment complex is a colorful nucleus bursting with the spastic energy of hot-tempered transgender individuals and abuelitas, a little person, and Spain’s answer to the snaggle-toothed Edith Massey. 20 Centimeters’s story may be slight but Salazar’s sparkling tribute to an alternative lifestyle and unconventional female beauty is liberating.