“Mala Mala,” a survey of transgender individuals in Puerto Rico, is nothing if not timely. With Laverne Cox, the Amazon series “Transparent” and Caitlyn Jenner, the topic of gender identity has gone mainstream.
The directors Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini interview prostitutes, drag queens, small-business owners and advocates about their transitions and relationships, sometimes meeting them on bright beaches, sometimes late at night in seamy locales. Among them are Sandy, a prostitute who wants to get off the streets; Ivana, a high-profile transgender activist; and Soraya, a 65-year-old hair stylist who was a sex-change pioneer in Puerto Rico. Others discuss how difficult the process is. After complications from hormones bought on the black market, Samantha had to halt her transition, left to hope she could resume someday. Paxx, the film’s only interviewee who grew up as a female but identifies as male, is frustrated by Puerto Rico’s lack of medical resources for his reassignment.
Sensitive and thoughtful, the documentary still stumbles when conflating drag and transgender as the same subculture. There is overlap, but some drag artists stress that they merely regard the women they play as roles: April hits it big by making it to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on TV, but Alberic decides to leave the scene to study law.
The film also tracks the Butterflies Trans Foundation, a civil-rights group that helps pass a law banning housing and job discrimination based on gender identity. When the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, speaks at a rally celebrating the victory, it’s a genuinely hopeful moment, briefly lifting the mood. But while affirming the dignity of its subjects, “Mala Mala” shows there’s little glamour attached to the pursuit of selfhood.