‘Lucky’ Gives a Rare Glimpse Into the Life of a Homeless Mom

A new documentary by first-time filmmaker Laura Checkoway gives a gritty and provactive portrait of one woman's survival story.

By Von Diaz Dec 02, 2013

Representations of queer women of color in film are still hard to come by, particularly one as intimate and jarring as "Lucky." In this first-ever documentary from journalist Laura Checkoway, you meet Lucky Torres–a fierce Puerto Rican lesbian mom from the South Bronx. Life isn’t easy for Torres, who came up in the system, bouncing around foster homes until she ran away and wound up homeless. She has two children–a daughter who was taken from her at age 14, and a young son who stays with her as she travels between homeless shelters and transitional housing.  Her struggles to survive have wounded her, and she approaches life with serious attitude and even rage at times.

But what’s most striking about Torres is her face–an outward manifestation of her inner turmoil. The word bitch is tattooed across her right cheek, a black spiderweb is on her left, and she has a skull on her chin as well as several others markings that stretch across her forehead, neck, eyebrows and torso. Her tattoos and piercings are accentuated by a hot pink mohawk. She wants to be a model and performer and Lil Wayne’s protege–anything to be famous. These aspirations are hampered by mental and financial instability and a sadness that often paralyzes her.

There’s nothing soft about this surprising and brutally honest film, which is currently on the festival and college circuit. It is not a projects to the palace story, and Torres is an unlikely hero. But throughout the film viewers become aware of how her attitude and the physical scars she wears have everything to do with a lifetime of survival. Filmmaker Checkoway spent six years embeded in Lucky’s world. Here’s her take:

Your movie takes a provocative look at beauty. Can you talk to me about that?

I thought I was following this badass chick; a style and street icon. But I soon realized that it was more of a story about the wounded and vulnerable person inside. Lucky is very interesting to look at on a superficial levels, and is stopped in the street constantly. Passersby always want to take pictures with her. People are very taken with her exterior–both excited by it and repulsed by it. I think it’s interesting that her surface is so bold, and that she has such bravado, but that only goes so far and there’s so much more she has yet to figure out.

Something that I love about this film is that I haven’t seen much representation onscreen of women that look like the women in this film. And they’re all so beautiful, and really underrepresented, almost invisible in the mainstream. There’s something about seeing the beauty in daily life, and in seemingly ordinary moments. And I think that that there’s beauty in our flaws and imperfection, and a lot of truth in pain. Lucky wears all of that and shares all of that in this story.

In the film, Lucky has to hustle her way out of homeless shelters and into public housing by fabricating a story. Why did you choose to include this?

For me, it’s an important part of the story. If a program or a system is backwards, then the way to make it work for you is backwards as well. Lucky knows that system really well and has been stuck in it, and sort of wired into it, and that’s how she makes it work.

I understand Lucky attended the New York premiere and responded erratically during a Q&A. What do you make of her reaction?

Lucky is a loose cannon. She is woman of many moods, as I guess we all are. But I think she is really pleased with the way the film turned out. She was invited to attend the premiere at the HotDocs festival [in Canada], and most people on my team said not to bring her. But I knew in my heart I would. She’d never traveled internationally and there were tons of hoops to jump through just to get her to Canada. But she did make it, and she was wonderful.

She had a tough night at the [New York City] premiere, and stormed out. She wasn’t sober–something that I identified a long time ago as being key to her being in control of herself. But, it must be so overwhelming, a packed house, and the entire cast of the film was there–no one had ever seen it before, and they were all in the front row. So, I just imagine it was very overwhelming from her on various levels. She’s there and being celebrated in this great way, but then it’s like, "Where am I going to [sleep] tonight?"

I have been very clear with Lucky that subjects of documentaries don’t get paid, that it’s not a money-maker. She has a very powerful story and a very powerful voice, and I would love for the film to create opportunities through outreach, to connect with young people and women. The point of this film is to open people’s eyes and change people’s lives.

What’s the most meaningful reaction you’ve gotten so far?

There’s been so many. This film, it’s so heavy with so many issues, I thought the conversation would be about that. But actually at some smaller screenings, people just wanted to start spilling their guts and sharing their dark pasts in a really guttural and powerful way. And it kept happening. There really is power in that, that sharing truth and pain sparks others to feel comfortable opening up in that same way. I know it’s a pretty hard core and raw portrait, and Lucky isn’t the most typical hero. In some way there can be some healing through sharing this story, of showing someone who’s had a hard time and has found a sort of healing.

Six years is a long time. When did you know the film was done?

I guess what you’re waiting for in a story is closure, and that takes time. I think a lot of stories often expect complete transformation, which is not the case in this story. Like when she and her sister Fantasy were able to piece together some of their broken past, and we got some answers. But, really, when Lucky finally reached a point where she was able to be a bit more reflective, that was really key for me, and for the story. There were moments that I was glad that I waited for. I felt that I had told a story.