Strong Look, Weak Presentation / by Samuel B. Prime

A kinetic promise of a documentary that resonates loudest in its moments of stillness, KIKI aspires to follow in the footsteps of the non-fiction giantess PARIS IS BURNING (1990), but falls short of expectations by losing sight of its stated subject matter and falling victim to the unavoidable datedness introduced by its political elements (primarily re: the election of Barack Obama). Maybe it is less that KIKI presents outdated information than a lot has changed for the worse in too short a span, but attempting to balance an ensemble of colorful performers with political context reeks of a novice director too nervous or insecure to place their trust in the audience to “get it.”

KIKI succeeds insofar as it introduces its audience to members of the New York ballroom culture scene whose stories are anything but simple, while simultaneously encouraging that they be seen for precisely who and what they are. It accomplishes this by spending the bulk of its runtime with these characters, allowing them the space to tell their stories of hardship and self-realization in full. The stories are unquestionably moving. What amplifies these stories are a series of still and silent video portraits, most often used to introduce a character. Mercifully, KIKI avoids usage of superimposed text to clarify names and roles. Instead, the audience is encouraged to look at the person, captured in a handheld medium-shot, while they simply look back at - and into - the camera. “See me for everything that I am,” these portraits seem to say. Unlike other elements in the film concerning important, but ancillary, political or societal subjects, these stunning portraits invite dialogue (or, an exchange). That the film ends with revisiting these portraits one-by-one confirms their centrality to the piece as a whole. However, the moments in-between unfortunately prove less satisfying; a mixed bag of performance preparation, competition snippets, and good scenes that - while amusing in a basic way - should have been left on the cutting room floor. 

If there is something missing, it is a basic dramatic arc. KIKI is more a general survey of a scene than it is an urgent and specific story to be told. That is not to deny the importance of the LGBTQ rights-related issues expressed within the film, but to state that there is no big competition, main character to follow, or - really - conclusion. As a result, you could say that KIKI defies convention, but not in a way that feels conscious or purposeful. KIKI attempts to be too many things at once and in the end divides its time and attention between categories that each could separately be their own film: major voguing competitions in New York City; a few key characters who comprise a specific community or subcommunity and who find themselves through dance and performance; a thorough, determined look at the visibility of and revolution in LGBTQ rights in the past decade. As it stands, nearly everything in KIKI feels like a gloss. We see the surface of things, yearn to go deeper, but never get there. The result is a film that feels broadly important because of its continued relevance, especially regarding the still rising number of HIV-positive members of the ballroom community and the disproportionate threat of violence against trans members, but only incidentally demonstrates skill in its presentation. For some, the fact that KIKI exists and will make headlines, thereby engaging with and engaging others in discourse on the many subjects it champions, will be enough. Maybe that is enough. Formally, however, it requires more rehearsal.

KIKI opens today, 02/24, at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles and on VOD! 

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon