If you would like the heads to explode of those who voted for Brexit and who want to vote for Trump, just tell them about the concept for this movie. The idea of a film about a disabled, bisexual, Indian woman who becomes an immigrant should be enough to kill them. The shame is they won’t actually watch the movie, which is a sweet, sharply observed and often surprisingly funny movie about one woman finding herself and her independence.
Laila (Kalki Koechlin) has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. She’s in college and on the cusp of womanhood, but is becoming increasingly aware that due to her disability, people have difficulty seeing her as an adult, with her own sexual and emotional needs. After getting a scholarship to study in the US, she has the opportunity to discover a new culture, but also discovers something she wasn’t expecting about herself.
She meets Khanum (Sayani Gupta), who is blind, and Laila is surprised when she begins to fall for her. The two end up dating, but Laila is still in the midst of her journey of self-discovery, which results in a brief dalliance with Jared (the Narnia movies’ William Moseley), and problems when Laila and Khanum head to Delhi to visit Laila’s family.
Tackling so many ‘politically correct’ subjects, Margarita With A Straw was in danger of coming across as more of a public service announcement than a movie. However, from the first few minutes it becomes clear this will be nothing like that.
Anchored by a truly excellent performance from Kalki Koechlin, the film is more interested in the central character and her journey than purely making points about sexuality and disability. There’s an honesty to the film. Laila isn’t a saint in a wheelchair, she’s a normal person, but who has to deal with other people’s narrow view of her, and her changing views of herself.
It makes some interesting observations, such as the physical closeness Laila experiences due to her need for help with certain things, despite the fact many don’t see her as a sexual being. Likewise, it is keen to normalise the idea of a blind woman and someone with cerebral palsy dating, to the point where you quickly stop even considering it. Instead the film shows their sweetness and tenderness, with the problems and issues the movie bring out, being about their emotional needs rather than their abilities. Similarly, it presents someone realising they are bisexual without too many histrionics.
All this is not to say it ignores the realities of Laila’s disability and sexuality, just that it pulls them together into a fully rounded coming-of-age portrayal of a young woman. Laila’s cerebral palsy certainly affects how people see her and also how she sees herself (her ultimate explanation for sleeping with Jared is rather fascinating in that respect), and it is this that the movie is most interested in.
Margarita With A Straw is genuinely touching film shot through with a rare sense of honesty. While using many of the tropes of the western coming-of-age movie, it brings fresh eyes to it, resulting in a film that is thought provoking, sometimes quite witty and surprisingly charming.
Overall Verdict: A film about a disabled, bisexual, Indian woman might sound like a chore to watch, but Margarita With A Straw is far from that, using a light touch to bring warmth and surprising depth to a charming coming-of-age tale.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac