Paola’s father Uriel is an ex-priest and her mother Hilda is a fortune teller. They will move from Ecuador, a country with a good deal of political instability to Cali, Colombia, the home of the notorious cartel. It all sounds like a recipe for epic strife, but her teen angst is still largely the same universal stuff most everyone can recognize in Santiago Caicedo’s Virus Tropical (trailer here), an animated feature adaptation of the graphic novel written by Paola Gaviria (a.k.a. Powerpaola), which screens during the 2018 Nashville Film Festival.
Arguably, Paola is a miracle baby, somehow arriving after her mother’s tubal ligation. Apparently, it can happen, but almost never this soon. Regardless, Paola surprised everyone, especially her middle sister Patty, who resents losing her status as the baby of the family. For several years, Patty bullies Paola, while the oldest sister Claudia remains aloof, until a switch flips and Patty becomes Paola’s even more ferocious protector.
The truth is Paola will need a little looking after. When their parent’s marriage ruptures, in spirit if not in law, her mother’s long-nursed resentments make her a rather unstable parent. Of course, their father has disappeared off to Medellin, at the behest of is manipulative mother. Eventually, Paola and Hilda move to Cali to live with Patty, but their mother soon returns to Quito, leaving Paola in the care of her sister and a hippyish, Summerhill-esque academy, which was the only school that would accept her on short notice.
In a way, Virus Tropical is the anti-Little Women. Paola is a bit of a Jo March kind of figure (she sells nature drawings rather than stories), but instead of a caring, sheltering home, her family is a fractured mess. There is also way more peer pressure, sex, and drug use than in Alcott’s novel. Yet, it is surprising how low the stakes feel throughout VT, even though gunfire periodically erupts while Paola and her friends are clubbing. Of course, it was all critically important to Gaviria’s alter ego at the time—and we can partially relate to that.
Nevertheless, the film’s style trumps its narrative in each and every frame. The black-and-white animation, faithfully modeled on Powerpaola’s art is starkly dramatic, not unlike Persepolis, but looser and more sketch-like. It looks terrific, especially the stunning, almost baroque backdrops. However, the constant bickering between mother and daughters becomes wearisome, as do the weak nothings that are the male characters.
Still, Paola and Patty are appealing rooting interests, so it is rewarding to watch them get a handle on their lives. Plus, the animation is so distinctive, it largely carries the film. Definitely a film for adults, notwithstanding the youthful characters, Virus Tropical is recommended for animation connoisseurs who will appreciate its look and texture when it screens tomorrow (5/12) and Wednesday (5/16), as part of this year’s Nashville Film Festival.