Adapted from the graphic novel memoir by Colombian-Ecuadorian cartoonist Power Paola, Virus Tropical follows the story of a young girl in Ecuador named Paola, as she grows and matures from infancy to striking out on her own as a young adult. Raised by a mostly single mother, Paola struggles through her relationships with family, friends and romance. The film’s use of idiosyncratic animation adds to the charm of the film which offers an interesting perspective on life, love and sexuality from a female perspective.
Beginning on the night of her conception, Tropical displays Paola’s birth as somewhat of a miracle as her parents did not expect to have any more children. The youngest of three sisters, we bear witness as she grows up in a home with many relationships but very few intimate connections. In fact, much of Paola’s life is shaped by various forms of abandonment, ranging from absentee parents to selfish boyfriends. However, despite her difficult upbringing, Paola seeks to discover what it means to experience genuine love. To her credit, Paola also seems most self-aware in regards to what love isn’t as opposed to what it actually is. As boyfriends come and go, Paola holds off from sexual encounters from numerous potential lovers for the simple reason that she doesn’t believe that they offer her real love in return. (However, it is also worth noting that Paola’s most stable relationship lies with her older sister, Patty, who does offer love and consistency throughout her life.)
Interestingly, religion plays a role in her development through her father, Uriel, albeit a distant one. A ‘retired’ priest, Uriel’s desire is less that they would experience God and more that they would ‘follow the rules’. As his role becomes less substantial in Paola’s life, so too does religious influence fade into the background. In Tropical, religion is not about love or relationship but rather about adhering to the proper guidelines in order to maintain order.
In light of this, it’s also worth noting the role that sexuality plays within the film. While displayed graphically at times, it’s clear that sex is viewed as the ultimate expression of humanity. Paola’s conception to open the film builds the argument that there is a definitive intent and purpose to her birth that even she doesn’t fully understand. Although her birth is mysterious to the doctors, with explanations ranging from stomach issues to demonic possession, Paola states clearly that she believes she exists for a reason. What’s more, throughout the film, sex is almost viewed with reverence as the characters recognize the importance of one’s experiences and maturity. As a result, Virus Tropical plays out as a coming-of-age drama as Paola develops her own self-awareness, often through her ability to respond to potentially sexual situations. For example, while her parents are not known for their physical connectedness, she learns how to kiss from the boy across the hall. (“Kiss me like they do in the soap operas,” she invites.) In addition, a young boyfriend whom she cares about cheats on her and then attempts to sleep with her, leading to her claim that “he doesn’t really love her”. In the midst of these situations, Paola recognizes the importance of her sexuality and the role it should play in her life.
On the surface, Virus Tropical appears to be a portrait of one young girls journey to adulthood. Yet, at its core, the film is far more intimate, recognizing our purpose and how our relational experiences shape our identity.