We watched The Debut (2000) last night. It's the first movie I've seen about Filipinos in America, and is as far as I know the only movie about Filipino-Americans with a Filipino-American director. I was afraid we were in for a Filipino version of Tortilla Soup, but was somewhat relieved that the tension between the main character (Ben, a Filipino-American high school graduate who has to pick between art school and a scholarship at UCLA that will put him on the fast track to medical school) and his postal worker father turned out to be believable and was deepened by the tension between the father and his medical doctor father-in-law.
The story moves along against the backdrop of Ben's sister's eighteenth birthday party (the titular debut); the father is too poor to throw a proper party, and all the family tension works itself out in the context of the party.
There's another story line involving another girl at the party (why she's there wasn't entirely clear, except as a choreographer for the sister's dance) named Annabelle, and her ex-boyfriend Augusto. Ben and Annabelle are attracted to each other, Augusto is jealous, etc.
There's a lot going on in this movie, and I'm not going to try to unwind it all. I was afraid when the Ben-Annabelle-Augusto story line started that I was in for a Filipino version of Better Luck Tomorrow [1, 2] or possibly, I don't know, any of a batch of hip-hip-cars-and-gangs movies. There are lots of cliches familiar from various black coming-of-age-in-Los-Angeles-or-possibly-Compton recycled here in a Filipino-American context, and I could have done without most of them. I really really could have done without the hip hop dance-off sequence; I've seen the House Party movies, after all, and I thought it undercut the role of the party in the movie as a set piece for Filipino family and cultural themes.
The DVD includes two short films: the film school project on which the movie is based and a (mock?) documentary on Filipino gang members called Diary of a Gangsta Sucka. The latter gave some of the comedic aspects of Augusto and his friends some context: they're cute little mini-gangsters playing dress-up, but they're not exactly harmless.
The story regarding Ben's choice between pursuing a career in art vs. choosing to be a practical striver is underlined by the fact that the movie's writer/director producer, Gene Cajayon, has apparently vanished without a trace.
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