With two small buns perched atop her head and sweat dripping down her face, Yuma socks the punching bag in swift succession — left, right, left. Repeat. The hits are intentional and forceful — there’s no mistaking how angry she is. Her boyfriend is a good-for-nothing drug dealer, her mother has left Yuma responsible for her three siblings and her mother’s boyfriend is a sexually harassing creep. Yuma (Alma Blanco) takes all that pent-up anger out on the punching bag — and later, on several people — which is endlessly satisfying to watch.
It’s no Hollywood blockbuster, but La Yuma is a touching Nicaraguan film from 2009 that will have you rooting for this scrappy young boxer to kick some ass. Though it’s nearly a decade old, the film still feels relevant. Surprisingly, it foreshadows the present-day youth protests throughout the country against the corrupt government of President Daniel Ortega.
Yuma’s determination and grit provide all the makings of a rags-to-riches, underdog-on-top tale. Growing up in the poor neighborhoods of Managua among thieves and drug dealers has toughened young Yuma — she won’t let anybody mess with her dreams of getting out, with boxing as her ticket. A few minutes into the film, Yuma’s already on her way: Her trainer reveals she’ll be working with one of the country’s top boxing coaches, the infamous Polvorita. But it’s not this classic plotline that makes the film worth watching. Rather, it’s the quirky characters and random locations — including a male strip club — that create entertaining cinema.
Like Yuma’s boss at the clothing store. Ms. Scarlett is a stumpy, overly dramatic middle-aged woman in bright fuchsia lipstick, who constantly chastises Yuma for not dressing sexy enough. Then there’s Yuma’s boxing coach who is, inexplicably, also a male stripper on the side. Meanwhile, Yuma’s drug dealer boyfriend (or perhaps ex-boyfriend – the details are a little unclear), Culebra (“snake” in English) — a confused, heartbroken, wannabe gang member — is tracking down her new lover and beating the crap out of him. For a good portion of the film, we watch Yuma fall in love with new boyfriend, Ernesto, a sweet but boring middle-class journalism student at the local university.
Each time someone tells Yuma that “women can’t box,” you’ll want to sock them in the face for her.
At its release, La Yuma was the first full-length fiction film to come out of Nicaragua in 20 years. Screenwriter and director Florence Jaugey, who is French-born but based in Nicaragua, left her job as an actress to begin writing, directing and producing her own films in the ’90s. When Jaugey set out to make La Yuma, there were very few resources to support the production of a feature film. But she was determined to tell the true story of contemporary Nicaragua that she observed while making documentaries. “I didn’t invent anything [for La Yuma],” Jaugey says. “I just put together the testimonies and characters I met filming.”
And while the film never gets too heavy, La Yuma does shed light on the youth protests against the crooked regime of President Daniel Ortega happening in the country today. From Yuma’s frustration with Managua’s neighborhood violence and her willingness to physically fight to escape it, to Ernesto’s desire to uncover the shady underpinnings of the Nicaraguan government, the film foreshadows the 2018 uprisings that continue to rock the country. “What’s happening in Nicaragua [today] is a pressure that exploded because the government has become less and less democratic year after year,” says Jaugey.
La Yuma can seem a bit chaotic at times — several subplots are never fully resolved and many of the characters are never developed — but it’s a charming coming-of-age story that paints a realistic picture of Nicaraguan adolescence. Each time someone tells Yuma that “women can’t box,” you’ll want to sock them in the face for her. And by the end of the film, her vindication is more than likely to bring a tear to your eye.
La Yuma is available to watch on Amazon Prime.
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