NEW TO HBO MAX! Over the past several years, I’ve had a few friends find the courage to finally come out as transgender. It just happened out of nowhere. When it did, I immediately thought of myself as I became overly concerned about how I’d react. Yeah, It was all about me because I’m a narcissist. Shifting the attention toward the right direction, Lupe, co-director by Andre Phillips and Charles Vuolo, tells the story of a trans-woman at the moment she begins to transform into her true self.
Our story begins in the past, where a young Rafael (Pedro Rodriguez) lives in Cuba with his sister, Isabel (Lucerys Medina), and her best friend, Elsa (Christine Rosario). Rafael is chastised when he’s caught staring at Isabel making love to her boyfriend through the bedroom window. Lupe then jumps from the past to the present, where we find an adult Rafael (Rafael Albarran) in New York on the search for Isabel, who was kidnapped and trafficked as a sex worker.
Rafael’s life is complicated in good and not-quite-so-good ways. By day, Rafael is an accomplished MMA fight trainer working with the talented Arun (Kadeem Henry). By night, he’s busting his way from brothel to street corner looking for his sister. When he has downtime, he’s with his best friend, Lana (Celia Harrison), who is helping Rafael with his transition into becoming Lupe, as Lana has already blazed the trail ahead. Along the way, Rafael finds and rescues Elsa from her pimp and makes a few discoveries about his past that complicate everything.
“… he’s with his best friend, Lana, who is helping Rafael with his transition…”
My biggest complaint about LGBT films over the last few decades is they are predominantly “coming out” stories. What Phillips and Vuolo do so well is tell an incredibly layered, original story. Rafael’s search for Isabel is not just a rescue mission but an attempt to reconnect with his sister before beginning his transition. Technically, Lupe is not a coming-out story but spotlights Raphael’s first step in becoming Lupe. Those steps are filled with hesitation, uncertainty, and resolve.
Lana is there to give her perspective on those early experiences, which reach beyond physical appearances and includes the first flirtations with a man, finding her voice, and her dreams of finally having sex. Rafael also represents a series of contrasts between the strong, confident MMA fighter, who can hold his own against menacing sex traffickers, and the intimidation he feels on his first night on the town as Lupe and later confessing feelings to his crush, Aran.
There’s a lot going on in Lupe, and the filmmakers orchestrate each element beautifully in what could have been a bloated mess. I should mention that Celia Harrison is more than an actor here, serving as a consultant for many of the film’s transgender issues. The moments where Lana shares her experiences with Rafael are unscripted, allowing Harrison to speak her truth. She shares many heartfelt and personal experiences, though I wish they were better rehearsed in the final cut.
I can’t say I’m an expert in the entirety of transgender stories in cinema, but on its own, Lupe is an inspiring and layered story of finding, embracing, and transforming one’s identity. The performances from relative unknowns, Rafael Albarran and Christine Rosario, are fantastic. If the film’s purpose was to tell me, specifically, something new and insightful about the trans community, then mission accomplished.
"…the filmmakers orchestrate each element beautifully..."