The exuberant and essential 1990 New York documentary “Paris Is Burning” casts a huge shadow over Sara Jordenö’s “Kiki,” and one can almost hear the characters from that film fiercely snapping “don’t mess with the original.” But this “next generation” look at the ballroom scene in New York’s gay and trans communities of color reveals itself to have its own agenda.
The world of Kiki is more than just a hobby for Saturday nights. Young people coming out as gay or gender non-binary are frequently thrown out of their homes and left vulnerable to bigotry, poverty and disease. It takes brave, smart and, importantly, organized members of the community to create what are called “Houses,” essentially clubs that provide care and guidance to get these kids through.
Is that achieved with lengthy meetings that resemble group counseling? Yes, to a degree. But more importantly (and certainly more cinematically), the social glue is an elaborate series of runway competitions.
“Kiki,” to its detriment, goes light on explaining the ins-and-outs of these exciting Vogueing throwdowns. Its interest is more in the community organizing, which means a lot of political talking points. Over time, we do learn more about a handful of extraordinary figures. Some, like Gia and Zariya, have taken the plunge to fully transition from male to female. But House Father Chi Chi doesn’t even consider himself a drag queen, and his most exotic costume looks more like something from “Mad Max” than anything else.
Positivity sparkles in every sequence, and that’s such a needed message as this community fights increased marginalization even as some gay rights victories are won. (In one interesting scene, the Supreme Court decision for marriage equality is met with a shrug: these people are far more interested in urgent issues like homelessness and health care.)
Despite a rich group of characters and some flashes of lovely dancing, one shouldn’t come to “Kiki” looking for the lighthearted punderdome found on the reality TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” There’s a far different strain of realness here.