Margarita With a Straw Comes to Netflix, (Almost) Delivers the Disabled Queer Character We Need

I heard whispers of Margarita With a Straw when it first came out in 2014, mostly among my activist friends. It looked like the cinematic unicorn we’d been searching for: a love story between two disabled women of color, presented without sensationalism or pandering. The best movie out there about crip queers. Legitimately fun. I had my doubts – because honestly, consuming media as a disabled person is an exercise in disappointment. When a movie that romanticizes committing suicide so your able-bodied girlfriend won’t “miss all the things someone else could give her” grosses $205 million worldwide, you learn not to expect much. So I was cautious when Margarita finally popped up on Netflix. Could it be? Was it really that good?

In short: yes, mostly.

Margarita is pretty damn close to the movie I’ve always wanted. It’s funny, touching, visually rich, and only slightly too syrupy toward the end. Its protagonist, Laila, fulfills most of my dream criteria for disabled characters. And save for a few veers into lazy storytelling (one in particular – we’ll get to that), it sets an encouraging standard for what disabled queer film can look like, and what it should already look like by now.

I’ll spare you a ton of plot up front; plenty of able-bodied reviewers have that handled. Suffice to say that Laila leaves her home country of India for New York, where her cerebral palsy and emerging bisexuality collide to blow up her entire life. She falls in love, reckons with her body image, comes out to her family, endures shattering loss, and generally does a lot of living in an hour and 40 minutes. But what strikes me about Margarita isn’t the arc of the story or its major events; it’s the little details, and as much what doesn’t happen as what does.

The first half hour alone features Laila getting into arguments, doing creative work, swearing, loving her family, celebrating her college acceptance, and masturbating in her wheelchair – almost of none of which we ever get to see disabled folks do on screen. And that last one, of course, shows us where we’re headed the rest of the way. Yes, this is a “disabled person discovers their sexuality” movie, but Laila is never healed (literally or figuratively) by that discovery. She’s one of the messiest characters in this movie. She’s clumsy about her desires because she’s figuring them out for herself, without an able-bodied savior. And in fact, when her aha moment comes, it’s not courtesy of some white guy who “likes her anyway” – it’s thanks to Khanum, a blind Pakistani-Bangladeshi badass who woos her at a police brutality protest (AKA the gayest meet cute of all time).

via GLAAD

via GLAAD

It helps that Laila and Khanum’s relationship is, well, hot. You can feel that they’re into each other from the start, and Khanum in particular comes across as someone who fully embraces what she wants. She says “I just like to be who I am all the time” and means it. And when she reaches out to touch Laila’s face because she “just wants to see her,” it’s easily the sexiest scene so far. She’s doing what she has to do to flirt, and as a result, knows how to use her body. She isn’t trying to hide from its realities; she’s sexy because of rather than despite her blindness.

And that’s the best part of Margarita: it doesn’t “despite” disability. Laila and Khanum’s disabilities matter in their lives. And you know what, thank God. Because so often we’re told – by authority figures, significant others, ourselves, and yes, media – that the “solution” to disability is to minimize its presence. Margarita counters that disability doesn’t need to be solved. Instead, it opts for the truth: some people are disabled, and most of us are out here being happy and doing stuff. We’re not necessarily sick (there’s noteworthy contrast between disabled and ill bodies in one secondary storyline), our disabilities can change shape day to day (Laila uses both a power chair and a walker), and we aren’t only happy because it makes able folks feel good. We are happy because we enjoy being ourselves. Imagine that.

Okay, about that unfortunate veer. I don’t want to give it more ink than it’s worth, so here’s the gist: after they move in together, Laila cheats on Khanum with Jared, the cute-I-guess British guy who types up her notes during class at NYU. (At least we know she’s exercised her rights in the disability services office. Ugh.) Anyway, this plot is so boring it’s exhausting. There are so many more interesting relationship problems than “whoops, the bisexual one couldn’t keep it in her pants.” Especially because Laila explicitly identifies as bi – she actually says the word, which is rare in film/everywhere! – I was so let down when the writers made her into the Unfaithful Slut. Bisexual characters too often get blamed for ruining relationships and I’m tired of watching that. At the same time, seeing a disabled woman a) make a gigantic mistake and b) pursue her sexual desires to a reckless degree was kind of refreshing? So I couldn’t hate it as much as I wanted to? Shows you just how starved we are for well-developed disabled characters.

I am unequivocally disappointed, though, that both of Margarita’s leads (Kalki Koechlin and Sayani Gupta) as well as its director (Shonali Bose) are able-bodied in real life. That actually surprised me given how well-received the film has been among disabled folks; I naively assumed that anything we liked that much had to feature at least one actual disabled person. Guess not! Admittedly, Koechlin and Gupta do an admirable job, and according to interviews Bose is bisexual and has a cousin with cerebral palsy, so it’s not like she’s pulling all this from nowhere (as able-bodied people are wont to do). But still, it’s frustrating to realize that even in the best movie of its kind to date, real representation – beyond good acting and secondhand understanding – apparently remains too much to ask.

Disabled characters are cropping up in more and more media, and it’s past time to start doing the real work of hiring disabled people to play ourselves. Margarita With A Straw fails on that front, but offers a strong primer on how to negotiate the plot and nuances of a disabled story. This was the best we had in 2014; now I want a movie that’s just as solid and made by disabled folks on both sides of the camera. Margarita can’t be our only option for disabled characters who aren’t straight white dudes. Cue it up on your next Netflix afternoon, see what it does well, and then let’s take the next step. There’s so much more to do.

Carrie's body is weird and she's making that work for her. She lives in DC by way of Los Angeles and has a conflicted relationship with social media, but you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram anyway.

Carrie has written 82 articles for us.

27 Comments

  1. Yessss! I watched this movie last week and have been searching and searching for a review from a queer and/or disabled person because every single damn review I’ve found of it is like “Aw! Even disabled people need love! Aw! So cute!” and I’m so not here for that. But to get a review from CARRIE! One of my very favorite writers! Thanks, girl!

  2. I’ve seen the movie it as well and my feelings are pretty much mirrored by yours. It’s surprisingly well done but the ending was kinda meh and came out of nowhere.

    I also did my research and was floored when I found out that the actress of Laila wasn’t really disabled – fooled me. But a funny tidbit I’ve found was that supposedly the cast and crew thought that the actress of Khanum was also blind in real-life until the wrap.

  3. As a bisexual person, I honestly think it’s unreasonable and even backwards to expect no bisexual characters ever cheat on their significant others. Anyone can be unfaithful, whether gay, straight or bi. And yes, there definitely ARE stereotypes that bi people are more likely to cheat, and even more commonly, that they will cheat on their same gender partner with an opposite gender partner, but at the same time, each character is an individual and has their own traits and flaws. I understand that no plot line featuring a bisexual character cheating on their partner, particularly a same gender one with an opposite gender person, happens in a vacuum… but if we expect every character that shares our identities to always break every stereotype and fit a politically correct mold of what we want them to be, then we stymy artistic expression and rob characters who represent us of the ability to be human, flawed and multi-dimensional.

    What I mean to say is the problem isn’t any given bi character being unfaithful: it would be the implication in a story that a character was unfaithful BECAUSE they were bi. In real life, bi people cheat on their significant others sometimes. That’s just life, and to expect NO fictional character ever act that way isn’t realistic. The problem isn’t depicting a bi character cheating: it’s when non-bi people assume ALL bi people cheat or that bi people cheat because they are bi. Then again, I haven’t seen the movie, so maybe there’s more reason this particular instance of a bi character being unfaithful is problematic–but that’s not the impression I got from this article.

    That said, it IS disappointing that the leads and director are able-bodied. That doesn’t mean the story isn’t worthwhile, but it would be nice to see more disabled actors playing disabled characters on screen.

  4. Ugh, I wish the blind-person-having-someone-type-their-notes thing was just a Hollywood misconception. The DSS office I had in college 1.0 couldn’t believe I didn’t want that, nor as little to do with them as possible. Diagrams, sure, but you’re going to more properly want a tactile representation.

    Anyway…

    Thanks for the review. I’m adding it to the queue and will be watching soon.

    • Not blind, but have a list of learning disabilities and I’ve run into that too with DSS office people and instructors.
      Like we might prefer, have or use assistive technology just never crosses their minds at all.
      Ugh.

    • I think you misunderstood the action. The notes were being typed for the character with CP. She didn’t really need them typed for her, she knows she could take her own notes. But the guy was cute, so she agreed to let him do it. New school, new country…it was an easy way to make a friend.

      I work in disability field, most with people who are deaf and/or blind. And, yes, I have taken notes for people, and been a reader, sometimes for pay sometimes as a volunteer. I had one blind woman tell me to go the the library and get her the stuff she needed. Graduate school was too much for her when we wouldn’t let her get away with crap like that.

  5. Thank you for reviewing this! I am very excited to watch it.

    I recently watched The Fundamentals of Caring bc Paul Rudd is my favorite hot dad, and I had a nice time watching it but it leaned so much on road trip *and* buddy film cliches that it just isn’t particularly memorable. Putting Rudd’s character’s processing of Trevor’s muscular dystrophy at the center of the film instead of Trevor’s experience was probably the biggest failing. Point being, though, that I do really appreciate that Netflix seems serious about including films on a wide variety of topics and with a wide variety of characters that most of us would never hear about otherwise. Democratizing access to art and all that. Hopefully soon they (or someone!) will give a platform to disabled filmmakers and actors who are elevating the conversation to where it should be.

  6. Thanks for your review! I, too, have heard a lot of good things about this movie. I haven’t had an opportunity to watch it yet–I’m hoping it is audiodescribed so blind and visually impaired viewers like myself can enjoy it. From reading your review, I was dismayed to read about Khanum’s touching faces to meet people. This is a highly stereotypical behavior, one which blind folks in real life never engage in. I’m baffled as to where this came from, and suspect Helen Keller, but that’s another post for another day. I am disappointed to hear that they fell back on such a cliché behavior which most of us who are blind are horrified at the thought of actually doing and hope it’s audiodescribed so I can enjoy for myself.

  7. I just reread the bit about Khanum and want to amend what I said above. This sounds like context really matters here. Really hoping to be able to watch this for myself. As a general rule, though, even when flurting, face-touching is not a thing.

  8. Thanks for the review! I caught this at the Seattle LGBT film festival last year and overall enjoyed it and was also surprised to read after that the main actress was abled-bodied. She was great.

    The film overall fell into a trap at the end that I see disabled movies/media often fall into, which made me less into it overall and now have to recommend with a caveat. I don’t want to spoil it, but I wouldn’t qualify the film as a “romance” with the genre understanding/definition of what a romance is. It’s definitely more a coming-of-age/coming-to-awareness film. I look forward to more romance stories with disabled characters in the future though…

  9. “Margarita can’t be our only option for disabled characters who aren’t straight white dudes”

    Agreed, but also, some disabilities are so desexualized it’s almost progressive to show them as having a sexuality at all. 🙁 That’s how sorry the state of representation is.

    This movie sounds great, though, unfortunate implications about bisexuality aside. I can’t wait to check it out!

  10. Oh, yay! I first heard about this movie reading Bitch’s review of it about a week ago and I was wondering if/hoping that AS would review it too. 🙂

    Looking forward to seeing this movie and also (as an able-bodied person) am grateful to have read this so I’m a bit more aware of this issues of the leads/director not being disabled. Thanks for the review!

  11. I saw this film last year and I enjoyed it but the cheating thing really dragged it down for me which is unfortunate because there was so much story there without it, (almost too much with everything that happens in the end) that it really was unnecessary in my opinion. I was also really surprised about the actors as well as the lack of criticism but thank you for writing this review, I really enjoyed reading it!

    • Me too at first, what a low blow! But I think what Laila was trying to say was, if you could see me, maybe you wouldn’t want me.
      I had to see if I was desirable by someone who sees me, because maybe I won’t let myself actually believe that.

    • The actress that plays Laila is in fact actually Indian for all intents and purposes. As in, she was born to French parents in India and has lived her whole life in India, playing local Indian roles in her entire film career because that is what she identifies as.

  12. Hi, first of all I want to say that I love your blog and I’ve been following it for a while. I have cp, but I can walk, so some of things you say about internalized ableism really ring a bell.
    I watched Margarita with a straw a while ago and I love it, so I was thrilled to read your review. However, I do not think that Laila cheating on her girlfriend was an unfortunate veer.
    SPOILERS BELOW
    The first person Laila kisses is a disabled friend, just to try. However, the first person she’s attracted to is an able bodied men in her band. When he rejects her, she is convinced that nobody will ever want her.
    When Laila meets Jared, she accepts him as help in class only because she’s attracted to him. In fact, she’s about to say that she can type on her own, but when she sees him, she changes her mind. Later, Jared kisses a girl and Laila has a wistful look on her face. Then Jared tells her the girl was just a friend. Despite all this, Laila never tries to seduce him, apparently convinced that she’s not attractive enough.
    The relationship between Khaum and Laila is really awesome, but I couldn’t help but notice that Khaum is the one who courts Laila, so to speak. During her relationship with Khaum, Laila discover her sexuality, that’s why Jared finds her suddenly attractive.
    I agree with you that painted all bisexual people as unfaithful is terrible representation, but in this case I think the message of the movie is that Laila finally found her own disabled body beautiful and felt confident enough to express her sexuality. That’s what the date with herself at the end of the movie is all about.
    I am sorry that they trampled on the “bisexual cheater” trope in communicating this message.

  13. After hearing about it, and seeing the trailer, I broke down and bought the DVD. I mostly agree with your review. I saw Laila’s time with Jared more as exploration. She really had no experience past kissing her friend with CP in India. I saw Laila and Khaum as strongly drawn toward each other, and the dalliance with Jared as wanting to know what it was like with a guy. I hoped that Laila went back to school in NY and got back with Khaum. But I’m a romantic.

  14. I realize this is an old article now, but I just got to see this movie on Netflix and have been looking for a review from a feminist angle. Thank you, Autostraddle.

    SPOILERS AHEAD:

    1) Was also disturbed to learn the actors who play Laila and Khanoum weren’t disabled. This has been commented on by the author and other users though, so won’t discuss this point.

    2) Within 5 minutes of starting the movie I paused it to learn a bit more about the lead actor, Kalki Koechlin, because it sure seemed like a white woman playing an Indian character, which I found disappointing as well as a strange choice by an Indian film-maker. According to a brief bio on IMDB.com it sounds like Koechlin is a “third culture kid” from India, but she is ethnically French. Whether or not that justifies the choice of Koechlin as opposed to an ethnically Indian actor for the character is a discussion worth having, I think, but for me, personally, I was never quite able to believe it…

    3) My lesbian heart was disappointed when Laila cheated with Jared, but I thought the idea of it was consistent with her character – she was interested in Jared from the onset, the coupling was foreshadowed with the scene where Jared shared a passionate kiss with one of his “friends,” plus she spent the entire movie discovering aspects of her identity, so the fact that she might accept the invitation to slip into bed with him didn’t strike me as false at all. That being said, nods to the bisexual people around me who are more sensitive to this being used as a tired movie trope, since it’s their identity under the microscope and not mine.

    4) What DID strike me as false, however, was that the sex was precipitated by Jared helping Laila use the toilet, which seemed like an odd (fetishistic?) turn-on to me since it’s setting up an unequal, care-based relationship dynamic between the two of them one minute and then having them consensually tumbling into bed the next. (I’m not saying partners can’t or don’t help their disabled partners with functional needs like this, just wondering if the first time is really likely to happen under those circumstances…) I dunno, is this me being ignorant? I would love it if some people with personal experience in this realm would weigh in on this argument.

    5) I’m surprised no one in the queer community has commented so far though, that Khanoum’s relationship with Laila absolutely COULD be read as nothing more than naive exploration or compensatory use by a straight or bi-curious Laila, rather than any kind of solid bisexual identity. Prior to Khanoum we see no evidence that Laila is interested in women and her initial reaction to Khanoum’s come-ons is clear discomfort. She submits to (returns) Khanoum’s affections only after significant screentime is spent on rejection from one heterosexual love interest and inhibition confronting another. Later, when Khanoum confronts Laila about cheating with Jared she accuses Laila of using her as a “stopgap until she finds a boyfriend” and LAILA NEVER ACTUALLY DENIES THIS. I was waiting for redemption at the end where, perhaps old-flame Nima makes a pass and Laila turns him down out of loyalty to Khanoum or else – surprise! – the “date” Laila has dolled herself up to see is Khanoum and we get to see the opening scenes of them reconciling their relationship – instead, we see no passionate reaction from Laila at all other than “I didn’t want to lose you” which sounds like someone who’s found contentment in companionship rather than love or attraction.

    I hope some other Autostraddlers pick up the discussion!

    • With regard to #4 – The disabled author of the Bitch Media review had this to say:

      “And in an extremely troubling sequence, the film sexualizes a toileting scene in a way that made me, as a disabled viewer, extremely uncomfortable, given the exceptionally high rate of sexual assault and abuse endured by women in positions like Laila’s, women who need assistance with day-to-day activities.”

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