Review by William J. Hammon, Creator of I Actually Paid to See This blog
In 2018, a caravan of migrants from Central America began a 3,000+ mile trek to the United States with hopes of seeking asylum. As Timothy Wolfer’s documentary, The Right Girls, notes in its opening text, President Donald Trump was less than enthused about the prospect, railing on Twitter. Among his more incendiary comments were that the caravan of desperate refugees constituted an “invasion” of our sovereignty, and that undocumented immigrants were “animals.”
Wolfer’s film not only aims to disprove the epithets, but to emphasize the inherent humanity in these displaced people. While this could be a shameless bit of treacle, The Right Girls succeeds in part because the good and the bad of that humanity is on full display.
Beginning in southern Mexico, the movie follows four members of the caravan, all of whom are transgender women. The group sticks together throughout much of the trek because there is strength in numbers, and because they are even further marginalized than most migrants because of their gender expression. The love and support they show each other most of the time is heartwarming, but even in their more combative moments, they are eminently relatable.
It’s to Wolfer’s massive credit that he found four women with very distinct and at times conflicting personalities. Joanna Stefani deals with the triple stigma of being trans, an immigrant, and black. Stocky Chantal has been taking hormones as part of her transition, and has dealt with sexual assault for most of her life. Both of them are from Honduras, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and the LGBTQ community is specifically targeted by gangs and cartels. Sinay, from Nicaragua, is a staunch defender of her crew, even briefly fighting a bigoted man who threatens the group.
But the star of the group is Valentyna, from El Salvador (which has the #1 murder rate on Earth). She’s loud, flighty, and an absolute drama queen. Much of the conflict in the film revolves around her. A large part of this is because she never hesitates to say what’s on her mind.
The journey is rife with risk and dangers. As they march, they become emaciated and exhausted. Passing trucks and charity groups prioritize women and children, but don’t consider them women, so they’re left to their own devices much of the way. It’s only when an LGBTQ-specific advocacy group shows up that they catch a break or two. But even then, the insecurity and paranoia they all face is palpable, because even if they survive this odyssey, they could still be arrested and deported at the U.S. border and sent right back to their respective countries. And yet, despite cries of “invasion,” Wolfer shows the lengths that the women are willing to go to in order to enter the country legally. One scene shows indeed just how easily it would be to jump the fence, but the women won’t throw away their chance at a better life on an impulse.
The film is at its best when it focuses on the pure human drama of the struggle. The group bickers constantly, because they’re very normal people put through the most extreme of circumstances. But in the end, cooler heads can prevail, and they come together in mutual respect, admiration, and love, borne out of their shared experience, and their faith.
There’s a potential shortcoming in Valentyna’s amount of screen time, as there comes a point where a reasonable viewer can question just how genuine she is. She mugs for the camera constantly, interrupts others speaking to the director, and when she has a fit, she makes a big show of it. The more she acts out, the more attention she gets, which may send the wrong signal. Early in the film, she’s teased by Joanne and Chantal that she’s trying to steal focus and limelight, but before too long, a real issue is raised as to whether or not she’s really a part of the group or if she’s just playing to the cameras for sympathy. It’s particularly telling that the other three all talk about the life they need, while Valentyna talks to no end about the life she wants. This kind of vanity which – while sometimes intriguing – is disappointing when she takes over the last third of the film. If she was in fact acting out for the camera, then it’s a shame that the camera obliged.
When it’s all said and done, though, what really matters is that these immigrants are seen, be it in a film, a photo op (one is staged in Tijuana by the advocacy group), or just in the streets. The worst of us are so quick to judge and hate based on what we either don’t understand or actively choose not to. Our own president calls them “rapists” and “inhuman.” The Right Girls is an important step towards giving these women the dignity they deserve, because as the film shows, good, bad, or in between, they are undeniably human, and that’s why it deserves our attention.