One Night Can Change a Lifetime.
This little film has quite an interesting history; the problem is you'll never fully know it. The Debut is a pure representation of the niche film, and unless you belong to that small part of the population, you'll never have any desire to see this film. That doesn't make this a bad film, nor does it make it a good film. What is The Debut? In the simplest of terms, it's the first "major" motion picture to represent Filipinos—not just as supporting actors but as the entire ensemble.
Not being from the Philippines myself, I know extremely little of the people or their culture—though I did have a Filipino friend back in high school who taught me a few "quality" phrases after much prompting. As such, a great deal of what the film was about was lost on me; I couldn't fully appreciate what was being done. So, the best I can say is that this is a mildly enjoyable film with a great back story.
Facts of the Case
Tomorrow is Rose's 18th birthday, a day of great celebration for her and her family as she makes her debut in the adult world. As final tasks are feverishly worked on in the Mercado household, Rose's brother Ben has done everything he can to steer clear of the festivities. It appears that Ben is ashamed of his Filipino heritage, and he makes every effort to distance himself from his family and his culture—he isn't helping in the party, he doesn't have any Filipino friends, he doesn't invite his friends to his home, and he has made no effort to learn about his rich ancestry.
But that is just the beginning of the problems that Ben is facing right now. He desperately wants to attend an art college, but his strict father demands that he capitalize on a full scholarship to become a doctor—yet another in the proud Mercado lineage. Ben simply cannot convince his father that his passion is far more than stupid drawings. Undaunted, Ben sneaks behind his father's back and cashes in his entire savings, sells his comic book collection, and uses the money to pay for the first year's tuition at art college.
It's the night of the party and still Ben resists the pressure to attend. Finally, he does come to his senses that he must attend—simply, it's his sister; how can't he? There, Ben will soon find that his whole life is about to change. Dramatic events will unfold as he meets an old childhood friend who is now a thug, as he meets a beautiful Filipino girl, and as he watches Rose's celebration unfold in a fantastic display of his culture. Ben will soon realize the mistakes he's made along the way and that tonight will change his lifetime.
Not to be redundant, but the overriding fact of this review is my lack of a common frame of reference for the film; The Debut was specifically made for the Filipino community, and I am not a part of that. The problem is that without that background knowledge, I discovered that I doubted the authenticity of the film. I didn't believe the way many people were acting, and it tarnished my experience. The major case in point of this is the young Filipino males, the thugs: they act all tough and bad, strongly reminding me of the behavior of young black males. As such, I'm thinking the whole characterization is wrong. Why are Filipinos acting like black men? Don't they have their "own way"? In the end, I shouldn't have doubted the authenticity because, as thoroughly detailed in the extras, that is actually how young Filipino males behave. What a surprise to me.
So, perhaps instead of criticizing this, I should be embracing the fact that I learned a few things about the community. That is the truth. But it is tempered by the fact that this wasn't apparent and branded as the truth until I plowed my way through the voluminous set of extras. In watching the movie, my preconceptions tarnished the film and it gave me pause. Unless I know a Filipino, unless I have some insight into the culture, or unless I watch the extras, much of the film is lost on me.
The Debut plays like a dozen other films in the same vein: a young person doesn't appreciate his culture, rebels at it, and only in the end learns the richness of what has been shunned. It's a simple and almost cliché plotline. And because of that, the film isn't all that interesting or compelling. Without that frame of reference, I feel I missed out on a lot of potential "inside information." What was going on that I wasn't privy to? I don't know. All I know is what I could understand, and all I understood was the top layer of this rather straightforward tale.
The story unfolds without much fanfare and lacks punch for the majority of the presentation. Aside from two dancing scenes (both unexpectedly excellent), things only come alive towards the very end when Ben's evening comes to its climax. All the loose threads come together into a turbulent confrontation, and I was suddenly quite engaged by the film, but it took some time to get there. And, this may be a bit off base and a tad nitpicky, but Ben and his two male friends really act too fey in this film—which just didn't quite fit with the rest of the film. Also, the relationship among the three of them doesn't come across as genuine but forced.
The strength of this film—if I can say it that way—comes from its impressive assortment of extras. I'm not going to go into specific details on any of them, for there are far too many. However, I will say that they are extremely varied, thorough, and an excellent addition to the film. They document so many facets of the film that I never would have known. All of them combine to paint a fascinating portrait about this little independent film that struggled to make its way into the realm of the major motion picture. Without such a comprehensive assortment of bonus materials, I never would have really understood half of what the movie was trying to convey. It cleared up all my misconceptions and let me realize what The Debut meant to do. The only shame was that I didn't know it all before hand. The bounty of extras include: an audio commentary with writer/director Gene Cajayon, six deleted scenes, a gag reel, two featurettes ("The Little Film That Could: Touring the Country" and "The Making of The Debut"), two short films (the original "Debut," with a brief introduction, and "Diary of a Gangsta Sucka"), three "Mercado Files" (The Debut Music, The Art of The Debut, and The Basco Brothers), and theatrical trailers for The Debut, Can't Hardly Wait, and Hollywood Homicide.
And, coming in during the last paragraph for a change is the discussion of the transfers on this disc. The video is an impressive anamorphic widescreen that is at the top of its game—far better than expected for this independent film. I didn't see any transfer problems to foil the presentation of solid colors, deep blacks, excellent detail, and precise contrast. It's a very accurate and lifelike representation, and it belies its shoestring budget. For the audio, it's a Dolby Digital 2.0 track that is good but really should have been remixed to a 5.1 track. With crisp dialogue and nice separation among the available channels, many scenes begged for the richness of a true surround mix. Though that's missing, you won't find any fault in the available option.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With my lack of knowledge on Filipino culture, many a time throughout the film not only did I doubt the authenticity of unfolding events and actions, but I also craved more tangible realizations of their culture. There are several obvious instances where their culture is fully highlighted and presented (e.g. much of the birthday celebration, especially the impressive dance sequence), but many times I wondered why more wasn't on display. How much did I miss? How much was there but was too subtle for me to notice? For the first "major" motion picture presenting the Filipino way of life, I feel shortchanged. I didn't come away from the experience as enriched as I would have liked. The culture needs to be presented more strongly so anyone who watches the film will gain a solid appreciation for these people. At best, I know a touch more, but it feels rather insignificant in the grand design.
It all comes down to a very simple conclusion: if you are Filipino, I strongly recommend this film. It's a tantalizing and interesting look at your culture, and you will enjoy seeing your people on the screen in major roles. You'll probably be able to relate to the unfolding events, and find many commonalities. With the wealth of bonus features, you'll also be getting some bang for your buck. But, if you are not a Filipino, I cannot give that same recommendation. While you'll walk away a little more educated, the overall experience isn't as rich and rewarding as it should be. The story itself is a bit weak from your perspective, and it's also likely the wealth of bonus materials may be something of an overload.
The Debut is hereby found not guilty on all charges. Everyone is invited to tag along and partake in the debutante ball.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Gene Cajayon
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