By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

Movie Review
John Denver Trending
Directed by Arden Rod Condez

(Spoilers ahead)

VETERAN teleserye writer Arden Rod Condez’s directorial debut John Denver Trending is remarkable for its confidently concise, yet sensitively nuanced treatment of timely issues such as bullying (both physical and cyber), adolescent depression, fake news and the marginalization of social misfits, especially when they are poor. Condez is a master, not only of the written word but also of cinematic language. He elicits amazingly natural, complex and credible performances from his ensemble of mostly untrained, regular folks (his family and townmates from Pandan, Antique) who all manage to convey their very real though flawed humanity. We know these people.

After just one brief acting workshop, 14-year-old Jansen Magpusao in the lead as John Denver gives an utterly convincing and moving performance. Until this movie’s premiere at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, young Magpusao had never even been inside any sort of theater. It was also his first time in Metro Manila. Magpusao is preternaturally intense and self-possessed as John Denver Cabungcal. His thoughtful and restrained delivery, seems anchored in his precocious and profoundly sorrowful resignation to life’s unfairness and to the realization of the prevalence of human cruelty, particularly that of the mob.

Central to the film is the deeply loving dynamic between John Denver and his widowed mother Marites Cabungcal (the luminous Meryll Soriano). She is still paying their well-off neighbor Sir Mando (the Antiqueño poet-playwright Glenn Sevilla Mas, one of only three trained actors in the cast) for his carabao, which had died after John Denver set off fireworks. Note that the carabao was not directly killed by those fireworks but Sir Mando claimed it contracted an infection as a result of their proximity, which eventually caused its death. That is an iffy proposition at best, but Sir Mando as the powerful landlord easily imposes his version of reality upon the weaker Cabungcal family. Nonetheless, Marites’ faith in her son’s intrinsic goodness never waivers, even as she stoically takes on this unjust debt to buy peace for her family.

Marites strives to bring whatever sweetness she can into her three children’s lives. After selling her hand-woven bags, she buys a single slice of chocolate cake to bring home to them. John Denver eats half. Marites scolds him for taking more than his share. Silently, he places the sugar rose from the icing between her lips. In this one intimate and thoughtful gesture, Condez captures the unspoken love and implicit understanding between mother and son: it’s her and him against this cruel world. They will not surrender their dignity. When John Denver gives up his life, it is not an act of surrender but of heroic transcendence. He would spare his dear mother from the trolls’ vicious attacks and this is the only way he knows to make them stop for good.

Condez builds up to this tragic end, with a harrowing scene of John Denver running home through the dried-up fields. He is a small figure all alone in the vastness. The camera judders with the violence of his emotions. Alone again in their small home, John Denver hears sirens in the distance. They may not be real, but Condez shows us that this is the reality the boy perceives. It is wonderful when a director respects his audience so much as to speak to them in his own language whether through images or speech. The film’s dialogue is in Kinaray-a, the filmmaker’s and his cast’s mother tongue which grounds it in authenticity. Nothing sounds memorized.

As the cyber-bullying against John Denver progresses, we see ants swarming over the precious chocolate cake, and the barrio sirujano (literally a surgeon, but actually a shaman or spiritual healer) Tay Bining (Renato Sagot) performing a ritual to out Dolores (Estella Patino), a suspected witch. Her inability to get along with the neighbors has made her an outcast and the object of community opprobrium. The Cabungcal family is also outcast to an extent: Marites is a poor migrant from Angeles, not quite fluent in the local language Kinaray-a. Her being a stranger, poverty, and the absence of a strong man to protect them, makes her family perpetually suspect of criminal intent.

Thus, John Denver is not given any leeway for being a mere child, but all his past misbehaviors are dug up, multiplied and magnified over social media as proof of his inherent delinquency, rather than as just foolish, youthful impulsivity — something our society is reluctant to grant the children of the poor. The disturbing sequence where the village policeman SPO1 Corpus (Sammy Rubido who manages to be both decent and terrifying) threatens John Denver with his gun, presents the sobering reality of what will likely happen to the mostly impoverished suspects caught in law enforcement’s net, should the age of criminal responsibility be brought back down to nine years old as those at the pinnacle of power would have it.

The juxtaposition of metaphors like the cake with the demonizing of the outcast Dolores amplifies John Denver’s plight. Earlier that fateful day, his classmate Makoy Pascual (Vince Philip Alegre) pulled down John Denver’s pants to expose his torn briefs. Makoy’s own father is an OFW who sends home costly gifts like the iPad which John Denver is later accused of stealing. The public humiliation of John Denver is Makoy’s cheap way of showing off his own superiority.

Through such disturbing scenes and striking images, Condez skillfully exposes the various aspects and levels of social rot and human awfulness in this microcosm of Philippine society, without being annoyingly preachy or condescendingly didactic. He dispassionately shows how the poor are made to pay full price, and then some: Makoy’s mother Evelina Pascual (Sunshine Teodoro quietly standing out in this supporting role) demands the full retail price for the missing, no longer brand new iPad; similarly, Sir Mando extracts his pound of flesh through Marites’ having to render unpaid back-breaking labor at his coprahan (where coconuts are turned into copra) for only P200 a day (to be offset against the P25,000 he claims his old carabao was worth), while her bag-making micro-enterprise suffers.

Fiction is said to be a precursor to reality. Condez’s first draft for John Denver was submitted in late 2017 to the QCinema International Film Festival but he deferred on that grant. It was also submitted in mid-2018 to the Palanca Awards and won 2nd prize. Then in December 2018, the Joaquin Montes bullying incident (Google “Ateneo Bully”) went viral. Condez slyly lifts choice bits from that serendipitous sort-of gift from the Universe to pointed effect in this final film version of John Denver Trending. A big difference between the real life cyber-bullying of Montes was that in his case, he was initially protected by his school’s authorities and even given a chance to air his side on national TV, whereas John Denver, despite his teachers’ (Shane Estoyes and Bert Briones) and the school principal’s (Luz Venus) well-meaning efforts, is essentially left to be ripped apart by the social media wolf pack. The internet also eats children.