The disarming effectiveness of Margarita with a Straw comes from its dual focus.
Because it is a film about sexual identify, it avoids many of the cliches of films about disability. Because it is a film about a woman with a disability, it avoids many of the cliches of films about sexual identity.
Laila (Kalki Koechlin) has cerebral palsy. As the film opens, she seems to have carved out an accommodated existence in India. She zips around on her motorized wheelchair, flirts with boys, and carefully curates the pictures on her Facebook page to simulate the “normal” existence she wants to convince herself she is having. But when she pursues the life she wants, she is confronted with the painful truth that just because people don’t mock or persecute you doesn’t mean they want to share a life with you.
About thirty minutes into the film, Laila moves to New York to attend a university. At first her mom is with her, and like any normal young adult, Laila bristles under the constant adult supervision. The lack of privacy is one of the less explored burdens of people with disabilities; It is hard to even conceive of meeting people, much less developing a sexual relationship, when one can hardly feed, bathe, or dress oneself without some assistance.
Koechlin gives the sort of performance that would no doubt garner an Oscar nod were she a Hollywood starlet in an American production. (Think Rain Man, The Sessions, The Theory of Everything, or Children of a Lesser God.) Director Shonali Bose states in the film’s press kit that she first undertook a nationwide search for an actress with cerebral palsy to play Laila but settled on Koechlin because “I couldn’t find anyone the right age who could act and would portray intimacy on screen.”
The sexual content is tame by American standards, but Laila’s willingness to explore her sexuality with both men and women would make some viewers uncomfortable even if she weren’t doing it from a wheelchair.
It was unclear to me, even at the end, whether Laila was a homosexual, a bisexual, or a heterosexual so starved for physical contact that she allows herself to think she is one of the former. “You need me to take care of you…” Laila’s eventual roommate and partner accuses. The film scores points for being willing to be critical of its disabled protagonist, but rather than truly explore the overlap of need and desire (an issue that challenges straight and gay, disabled and able-bodied alike) it adds a third act change of circumstances that forces Laila’s hand.
Margarita with a Straw (★★★) is worthy of praise for presenting its protagonist as a human being and not simply a living embodiment of her disability. That said, I’m not sure how interesting Laila is apart from her disease. I mean, if James Bond were gay or Batgirl were in a wheelchair, their movies would still be interesting, wouldn’t they? Take the disability away, and Margarita is fairly conventional. Or perhaps it is an unconventional tale told conventionally.
Margarita with a Straw will be available on VOD from Wolfe Video starting June 14, 2016 and on DVD beginning June 28, 2016.