HBO Max Streaming: Lupe (2021) - Reviewed

Photo Credit: HBO Max

 “You’re going to have to be stronger if you want to be different.”

This is a message given to Rafael in Andre Phillips and Charles Vuolo’s Lupe, and applies to him in many ways.  We witness him become stronger physically, emotionally, and mentally— all because he is “different.”  Different for being a Cuban immigrant.  Different for being transgender.  Different for not fitting into any mold pre-determined by society.  While it’s a harrowing journey for Rafael and the audience alike, it makes for a moving and intimate piece of cinema.

Rafael (Rafael Albarran) has lived a hard life.  Bullied by his peers as a child, he was raised in Cuba by his sister Isabel (Lucerys Medina), who becomes pulled into the New York underground sex industry.  Now that Rafael’s grown up, he wants to find her.  He follows her path to New York and becomes a boxing instructor, grappling with his budding transgender identity in an environment that is saturated with toxic masculinity, all of which is thankfully made easier by his transgender friend Lana (Celia Harrison).  During the search for his sister exploring the seediest parts of town at night, he discovers an old family friend from Cuba named Elsa (Christine Rosario Lawrence), and they catch up on old times.  Through his allies Lana and Elsa, he becomes more self-actualized and learns some difficult life lessons along the way.

There are many places where Lupe excels, but the most standout moments are its most personal ones.  Every actor is absolutely convincing in their role with an immediately likable candor about them that exudes from the screen, and their conversations have a raw yet casual energy about them that make us feel as though we’re actually a part of them.  This is partially thanks to the attention Phillips and Vuolo paid in their attempt to have an authentic portrayal of the transgender experience.  Celia Harrison identifies as transgender, and they made the choice to keep all of Lana’s lines unscripted in a desire to retain Harrison’s genuine voice.  It works excellently in painting Lana into a full character rather than a caricature with broad brushstrokes despite her only being in a handful of scenes.  

Rafael defies all stereotypes of a transgender individual in Lupe.  When we first see him as an adult, he is downright “macho” with his toned muscles, traditionally masculine clothing, and impressive kickboxing prowess.  The character is so adeptly performed, however, that there’s always something just beneath the surface wanting to come out long before we first see him in a pair of high heels.  When we finally watch him explore his transgender identity and adopt the name “Lupe,” it is an exhilarating moment and gives the character a fascinating duality that is rarely presented so well in a film.  Combined with flashbacks from his childhood in Cuba — practicing fighting in the field, being teased for not fitting in, and coming to terms with the fact that his sister is a sex worker — Rafael is a complex, well-rounded character who commands every scene.

Lupe is a powerful character piece that is so reverently done that it’s easy to empathize with Rafael’s struggles and get lost in his world as he tirelessly searches for his sister.  This small film packs a big punch in its depiction of what makes a person different, how they choose to navigate that “difference,” and underneath it all, the universal themes that ultimately unite us.

--Andrea Riley