From first time feature director Santiago Caicedo, Virus Tropical is a wonderful look at the challenge of growing up through the eyes of a middle class girl from Quito in Ecuador. The film is a black and white animated feature adaptation of an autobiographical graphic novel of the same name written by Power Paola (Paola Silguero). Virus Tropical retains the visual style of Paola's simple line drawings in recreating South America in the late '70s/early '80s, near the birth of the drug mafia boom. However, this story isn't about that, it's all about Paola and her family, and the adventure that is growing up and finding your way through a world that doesn't always have your best interests in mind.
Paola Gaviria is the youngest miracle daughter of a psychic who works for Ecuador's president and a defrocked (but still devout) priest. Her mother had he tubes tied years earlier, leading the doctor to misdiagnose the pregnancy as a "tropical virus", but that doesn't stop Paola from coming, a kinda of innate tenacity that follows her character throughout the story. Paola's two sisters, the flighty Claudia and pragmatic Patty, also play a big part in her growing up, each laying the groundwork for the woman Paola would become.
Virus Tropical is not a story with any grand reveals or single central story line with a big conflict to be resolved by the time the credits roll, it's just a film about what it takes to make it through life. Paola's family splinters, one sister moving off to Colombia with a beau, father leaving to rekindle his relationship with the church, mother moving in and out of her life, leaving her with just one sister to count on.
The family is complicated, but that's just the way life is. None of the traumas in Paola's life are shown to be great melodramatic shifts, instead they are expressed as simply the beginning of another new chapter. We follow Paola from conception to young adulthood, and in that time she seems to live a thousand lives, but don't we all? That's really the beauty of Virus Tropical, and the thing that connects it to a universal experience.
Paola, like many of us, deals with the fracturing of the nuclear family, learns to love and to let go; practices caution, then makes mistakes; allows herself to be taken advantage of, then takes charge of her life. It's a cliche that life isn't about the destination, but instead the journey, but it is universally true, and that's what makes this memoir so engaging. Virus Tropical is a film all about the adventure that is the life we all live while we're waiting for our grand adventure to begin. It takes all of the small moments - and some of the big ones - and places them in the proper context as to how they shape and change us.
Power Paola's writing and the source material seem to deserve most of the credit when it comes to expressing this idea, but without Caicedo's commitment to the style and strength of the material, Virus Tropical might have been a very different experience. It isn't flashy, but Virus Tropical is an amazing look at a life that feels both familiar and exotic, and if we look inward, perhaps all of our own adventures have the potential to fascinate in the same way.