Viva Margarita!

(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Dominique Cardona, Laurie Colbert; Writ: Dominique Cardona, Laurie Colbert, Margaret Webb
Starring: Nicola Correia Damude, Patrick McKenna, Claire Lautier, Christine Horne, Maya Ritter, Marco Grazzin.
What a charmer Margarita is! It’s easy to see how this delightful Canadian production won over audiences at last year’s Inside Out Film Festival in Toronto, and managed to do the same at festivals in America and Europe. This international crowd-pleaser, which plays like an indie relative of Mary Poppins with a LGBT twist or like Canada’s answer to The Kids Are All Right, is sure to receive a warm reception when it opens this month in Ottawa and Toronto.

Margarita, played by Nicola Correia Damude, is the perfect nanny. She’s excellent with kids. She cooks. She cleans. She even knows how to repair electronics, fix the eavestrough, mend the roof, and maintain the hot tub. She’s like Supernanny in reverse—instead of being a frumpy British bitch, she’s a caliente Mexican illegal alien with a heart of gold. The icing on the cake is that Margarita is also a lesbian, so busy mothers need not worry about Margarita steaming up the hot tub with the hubby.

Margarita might have to worry, though, since the wealthy family she nannies for is strapped for cash. Ben (Patrick McKenna) blew the family savings on a get-rich-quick scheme and Gail (Claire Lautier) refuses to take work that actually pays the bills. The casualty of their financial situation will simply have to be Margarita. Even though she gives them considerable bang for their buck, not to mention offers the lone positive influence for their spoiled daughter Mali (Maya Ritter), a nanny just doesn’t seem as high of a priority as vintage wine and nifty gadgets.

Margarita’s situation is the financial times in a nutshell. At the mercy of the frivolously well-off, who use money more like a toy than as a means for survival, Margarita stands to lose everything at the age of twenty-four. It doesn’t help, either, that her law-student girlfriend, Jane (Christine Horne), is a non-committal blonde who treats their relationship simply as something to do. It seems the members of Toronto’s highly driven upper-crust are so far off the map they don’t know a keeper when they see one. White liberal guilt thrives in the cold city, but Ben, Gail, and Jane are all so self-involved that they risk losing the one rock holding their lives together. Margarita has an indefatigable spirit, however, so she takes her hard knocks in stride and works to actively better her situation, unlike the others who seem to muck things up the more they do.

Margarita presents a light-hearted comedy of manners with a unique spin. This warm tale looks into the divides of class and social status that seem to be widening thanks to the contemporary financial collapse, yet it shows how other traits in society seem to be finding an equal footing at the same time. While Margarita’s poverty and potential exile are plot twists for her social situation, her sexuality is treated matter-of-factly. From the opening scene, which sees Margarita and her girlfriends having fun in the hot tub, Margarita’s sexual orientation is simply another trait of her multifaceted character, like the moms played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in aforementioned Kids Are All Right. Even though Margarita is gay, she’s a far better parent than Ben and Gail are put together. Margarita’s relationship with Mali is a success because everything she does comes from the heart. Margarita doesn’t approach life as a checklist.

What makes Margarita a real winner, though, is Nicola Correia Damude in the title role. Although Margarita is written like a saint, Damude portrays her as human, down to earth, and doggedly pragmatic. Damude is a radiant presence, funny and sharp, and just as well-rounded a gem as the character she portrays. The supporting players are equally fine, especially Ritter as Mali, who provides some unexpected counterpoints to Margarita’s tale.

Margarita’s relationship with Mali is particularly endearing. The two are like sisters, or more like a Big Sister and a Little Sister, as Margarita manages to give Mali a decent arc as the film progresses. Mali is fairly unlikeable when Margarita begins, but she learns from Margarita’s example and comes to see the value in hard work and an education, and she undergoes a strong transformation in awareness while her parents remain concerned primarily for their own well-being. (Even Ben and Gail’s attempts to save Margarita seem rather self-serving.) Margarita, on the other hand, saw her job description slowly rise beyond a mere nanny to read “full time servant,” but her spirit and devotion to young Mali show that success and personal worth aren’t measured with a dollar sign. Love, pure and simple, is the hallmark of success. The buddy tale of Margarita and Mali is girl power in its most empowering form.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Margarita screens in Ottawa at The Mayfair June 14-15.
It plays in Toronto at The Female Eye Film Festival on Thursday, June 20 at 8pm.