Right from the very beginning Margarita, With a Straw sets itself apart from most films about people with disabilities. We first see Laila (Kalki Koechlin) happy, sitting in her wheelchair in the back of a van driving through New Delhi as her little brother cringes at their father's singing. It's not until the elevator to her classroom at Delhi University is broken and she has to be carried, chair and all, up the stairs that we see the frustration cross her face.
Life with cerebral palsy is surely more difficult than without, but this story is hardly the usual triumph-over-adversity weeper we're used to. It's more of a coming-of-age story, where a young woman learns to define herself on her own terms, apart from those of the parents she grew up with. And while it's tempting to say, "she just happens to have cerebral palsy", that would work to erase the disability as part of her identity. It does exist, and it makes a difference in the way her story plays out. This is a disabled woman's coming-of-age story, not merely a coming-of-age story with a disabled woman in the lead role.
So Laila fumbles her way through social minefields just as any other college student might. She experiments with her friend Dhruv (Hussain Dalal), but nurses a crush on Nima (Tenzing Dalha), the lead singer of the band she's composing a song for. But Dhruv is in a wheelchair of his own, so when she rejects him he lashes out; does she think that Nima's "normal" will rub off on her. And when Nima rejects her advances, the stew of shame and embarrassment that wells up can only be more complicated in light of Dhruv's question.
Luckily for Laila, she can escape. She is accepted into a creative writing program at NYU, and her mother (Revathi) comes along to help her get by in New York City. It's here that she meets Khanum (Sayani Gupta), a young blind woman of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage, and is surprised to find herself falling in love. And then to find herself also attracted to Jared (William Moseley), a white, British student who helps her type up her assignments. Again, this exploration from hetero- to homo- to bisexuality is a common story, but it opens up new facets when inflected by race and ability.
Writer/director Shonali Bose balances these many intersections with ease, almost making us forget how hard it is to do. And Koechlin's performance cuts straight through, laying bare the smart, funny, beautiful woman who occupies this chair. When her disability does matter, we feel frustration with her, never pity for her. When it doesn't, it falls away, and we always see Laila herself instead of the chair.
Even beside the intersectionality, Bose displays a remarkable command of her film's emotional language. She guides us carefully through Laila's every mood, with Koechlin as the signpost, and so deftly that we it feels only natural. That's a rare enough talent for any coming-of-age story, and even more so here.
Rating: 4 out of 5