Given that director Thomas Mignone explored the world of child abuse in his feature On The Doll with an unflinching temperament, one would be right to assume that his follow-up, The Latin From Manhattan, a film detailing the lives of sex workers in 1980’s New York, would be similarly unflinching in its depiction of such an industry.
To be fair to Mignone though, The Latin From Manhattan never feels like an exploitive film. Yes, it doesn’t shy away, but similar to such works as Boogie Nights or 54 there’s a mainstream gloss that offsets some of its more darker explorations. The titular description is that of Vanessa Del Rio (played with movie star wattage by Vivian Lamolli), a now adult film icon (since retired), who, in the 1980’s, was on the rise in making herself known within the industry.
The ironic vulnerability that often laces the women of such work is a facet that Mignone dedicates his narrative to throughout, refusing to shy away from brutality – one sequence sees Vanessa’s gal pal (Taryn Manning, impressive) horrifically assaulted – and managing to somehow justify such inclusions by dedicating screen time to the friendships and support network that so many women need in order to survive the hardships that come with sex work and pornography.
Similar to how 2019’s Hustlers put a more human spin on the stripclub scene, The Latin From Manhattan refuses to demonise the sex work industry. Additionally, Mignone moves away from the stereotypes associated with tested representation by incorporating a sub-plot dedicated to a police officer (Jesse Metcalfe) who is initially set up as an investigative force looking at Vanessa, before his arc transfers to a more emotional truth surrounding the AIDS epidemic at the time and how any of our expectations should be subverted in Mignone’s hands.
There’s both a sense of danger and frivolity to the film, and so much of it lives off the dedication of Lamolli as the ceiling-shattering Del Rio. Though not exactly a typical biopic, The Latin From Manhattan succeeds as a stigma-breaking affair around its oft-considered taboo subject matter. As small a film it may be, Mignone’s intentions are grand as he revels in a filthy setting that may not sugarcoat its subject, but he refuses to degrade his players either.
*The Latin From Manhattan screened at Dances With Films in Los Angeles in June. No release date has been announced regarding a national release.