- The Magazine
Gripping and engaging, Timothy Wolfer’s documentary The Right Girls (★★★★☆, Critic’s Pick) chronicles the story of four transgender women from Central America who join the infamous “caravan” of refugees who came to the United States in 2018 seeking asylum. We are first introduced to three of the principal characters: Joanne Stefani, a black woman from Honduras, is fleeing racial and anti-trans discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of her family; Chantal, from El Salvador, is fleeing an abusive relationship; and Valentyna, also from El Salvador, has a murky past and claims to be fleeing from gangs that she had to pay “protection money” to in order to keep her small business operational.
A fourth, Sinay, from Nicaragua, appears in part of the film and travels with the principals for a significant part of their journey, but rarely speaks to the camera. Her life, and even her personality, are shrouded in mystery — creating a loose thread that Wolfer does not do enough to resolve by the end of the film.
Much of the documentary focuses on the day-to-day struggles of the band of trans women as they are forced to walk for miles each day, making their way through Central America. They try to hitch rides on trucks or pedicabs, but are largely ignored or turned away because of their gender identity. At several points, truck drivers tell the group they will only give rides to “women and children,” a stark reminder that the larger society does not view their womanhood as legitimate. The journey is hot, tiresome, dirty, and fraught with peril: any wrong step could put the women in danger of losing their lives.
Ultimately, the group splits up following a conflict that is never clearly defined or fleshed out. Viewers see Chantal and Joanne crying and saying they feel betrayed by Valentyna, but the details are murky — a lost opportunity for storytelling. The audience sees Valentyna in Des Moines, Iowa, having been granted asylum, but sees no more of Sinay, Joanne, or Chantal. A single sentence mentions all four women were granted asylum, unlike 70% of people who request it — but it’s treated like an afterthought or an aside.
Despite its strong narrative, attention to detail, and memorable characters, The Right Girls leaves several stones unturned, journeys untaken, and additional storylines or subplots unpursued. It’s a shame, because the film is able to keep us emotionally invested in the outcomes of the women’s journey, only to run out of steam in the final stretch.
The Right Girls screens as part of this year’s Reel Affirmations Film Festival. For more information about the festival or to purchase tickets or festival screening passes, visit https://reelaffirmations.eventive.org.
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