If it weren’t for its complete lack of drama, one could say that Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’s Mala Mala unfolds much like a Real Housewives episode, as its trans characters are introduced with slow-motion shots and their first names are written across the frame. Although its stars spend a lot of time articulating their identity issues, performing and cavorting alongside their drag mothers, the film exudes none of the urgency or gravitas of Paris Is Burning. Mala Mala has no kinship to the rawness, if not ugliness, of Jennie Livingston’s classic documentary, whose camera worked more like a curious open pore, and less like a hagiographic machine.
Mala Mala is a celebration of a certain multitasking brand of trans-ness where working girls give road head for 40 bucks, but also put on their Sunday best to give courtroom testimony for an anti-discrimination bill. They’re sex dolls and activists, artists and civil servants, tops with their clients and bottoms with their boyfriends. But with around 10 main subjects, only one of whom is female-assigned at birth, the film can feel one-dimensional and quick-paced, like a Pecha Kucha, as it paints an overtly broad picture of trans life in San Juan.
It’s also as if the filmmakers were so invested in portraying the hard-earned dignity of their subjects that there was little opportunity for the unpredictable to occur. We hear a lot about how difficult it is to get a job, how their bodies started out male, but their essence was female, and about their obsession with Marilyn Monroe, RuPaul, and Regina George. Very rarely do their contradictions (Samantha Close wants to achieve a “natural look” by getting a nose job, lip injections, and a stripper-like body) and bad gender theories (gender dysphoria, trapped souls in wrong bodies) go beyond the clichés, perhaps because Santini and Sickles aren’t really interested in the space between what the women say and what they mean. In one of the rare and pleasant moments when a character goes off-script, Sophia Voines confesses to a kind of mute-ness because speaking “outs” her. Voines, the more melancholy and pensive of the women, is the most bewildering case study, demonstrating a disarming awareness of how trans women changing their physicality is a plea addressed to somebody else much more than to their own selves.
The film’s best scene isn’t when the women are given the impossible task to explain their condition through speech, or when the camera follows them in their mission civilisatrice to get all hookers to wear condoms and to hopefully transition into a daytime job (into “someone who doesn’t cause a stir,” one of them says). It’s actually when Sophia performs, not to a literal audience nor under the flashing lights, but in front of her bedroom mirror. She uses a dildo as a microphone and mimes a melodramatic song. We can barely see her, as the room isn’t well-lit, making her look like a ghostly cutout. The performance tells us more about her existential position, and that of her peers, than whatever truisms about sexuality these women have inherited, and adapted, from the general culture, precisely because Sophia doesn’t say anything at all. She simply moves. It isn’t a celebratory nor a choreographed dance, but a kind of mourning. Ironically, it’s her muteness that actually outs her.