Women with disabilities aren’t exactly in the cinematic spotlight, which is an absolute shame because they’re just as deserving of representation as everyone else. And Laila, the main character of Margarita With a Straw, is no different than any other young woman her age, except for the fact that she has cerebral palsy.
Director Shonali Bose takes her sweet time showing exactly what life at home and at school is like for Laila. The character is a smart young woman, talented at writing and music, who finds herself in a position where she can’t date the men she wants, and is done with the men she’s already dated. It is difficult to watch the discrimination Laila faces, which comes across as awkward in spite of their good intentions, because of the fact that she’s so self-sufficient.
Cut to Manhattan, where Laila has just been accepted to New York University and finds herself entangled in not one, but two relationships. The first sparks up in class: Jared, a young man who helps her write and has lovely discussions with her, engages with her mentally, and sexually. The other she meets in a peaceful protest turned riot; Khanum, a blind woman and activist who sparks a passionate relationship with the protagonist. Laila discovers her bisexuality, something she had not formerly found herself contemplating. And it's a treat to actually witness a character who isn't relegated to "curiosity" or "sort-of-gay", but truly bisexual in queer cinema.
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The first time the two of them are alone after their first meeting is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where while touching one of the slabs of text, Khanum slowly begins to touch Laila hands, then her body, then her lips, until she tells her how pretty she is. It’s a scene shot with such simplicity, and yet there’s an all-too-rare intimacy. Bose's approach to Laila’s romantic life is filled with such grace and never slips into that familiar exploitative place that many filmmakers find themselves in when approaching female subjects (as well as subjects with disabilities).
Not once does it feel like the film is intruding on any scene of romance between these characters, and their relationship unfolds ever so naturally. As the narrative builds, Margarita With A Straw allows Laila the same kind of queer exploration that many of us experience ourselves; reading queer literature for self-exploration, sexual exploration to discover what the body and mind truly want, and, toughest of all, the notion that maybe we’re attracted to more than one individual. Most interesting though is the way that codependency plays into relationships in which both individuals in the couple are disabled, even with all the self-sufficiency in the world.
Just as important as romantic relationships are those that queer children share with their parents, and Shonali Bose explores this with Laila and her mother. By no means is it uncharted territory, and strays into melodrama a little too much for its own good, but it's unavoidable when exploring the journey of this sympathetic character's self-realization. And at the end of the day, Margarita With A Straw doesn’t aspire to making great statements, and it doesn’t have to. It’s comfortable offering a familiar queer romantic drama through the lens of a woman with a disability, and that’s perfectly fine, solely because of how dedicated it is to not limiting her to that, painting her as a real woman through and through.
Margarita With A Straw will be playing at Miami Beach Cinematheque on Thursday, April 30, at 9 p.m. as part of the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. Tickets cost $13. Visit mglff.com.
Follow Juan Barquin on Twitter @woahitsjuanito