By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
Billie and Emma
Directed by Samantha Lee
HOW refreshing it is to encounter a coming of age film without the usual adolescent angst and anger! More so when the teen protagonists, both high school seniors, are one committed butch lesbian (Isabelle C. Santos, aka Billie, played by Zar Donato) and the bi-curious, and very accomplished flirt Emma (Gabby Padilla) who cope with their respective personal crisis with humor and grace.
Billie has been exiled to provincial San Isidro, until the minor scandal of her carrying on openly with a classmate in her old school in Manila, and her father’s subsequent rejection of her, blow over. She is temporarily under the care of her maternal aunt Kate Castro (Cielo Aquino), the religion teacher at St. Gerard’s, an exclusive girls’ school where Billie is now a transferee. This creates the opportunity for snarkily pointed classroom exchanges, more like a gay rights debate, between the aunt and her headstrong niece about Gospel teachings on homosexuality and the like.
Apart from the occasionally heavy-handed propaganda for gay rights, there are many light-heartedly delightful scenes of innocent high school fun: playing F.L.A.M.E.S. and Chinese jackstones, making an alphabetical list of the pogi-est boys locally available, learning responsible parenthood by having the girls take care of a raw egg “baby” with a drawn-on human face, and the small town talent show.
Filmmaker Samantha Lee wears her queer advocacy with pride. A copy of Rubyfruit Jungle, the 45-year-old seminal lesbian text by Rita Mae Brown, is a prominent prop in several scenes. The maverick Billie with her butch bob haircut and Doc Martens boots, keeps the book by her bedside, reading it constantly like the Holy Bible. Her closeted aunt gets intrigued and reads it too. She has an epiphany about acknowledging her own queerness, and her niece’s as well, which deepens their familial bond. Immediate family members’ gentle, non-judgmental responses to queerness are the preferred alternative to the conventionally expected harsh hysterics, violent degradation, even rejection with eviction, which usually stem from denial, shame and fear. But even her classmates’ anxiety over Billie’s lesbianism being contagious is only annoying, even amusing, rather than threatening.
Lee may also be acknowledging Rubyfruit Jungle’s inspiration on her film’s plot. In the novel, the protagonist Molly loses her college scholarship when she is outed and expelled for “moral reasons.” These parallel Billie’s exile, and Emma’s losing any chance that her conservative Catholic school will endorse her for a college scholarship when her pregnancy is revealed.
The book-smart Emma and her feckless teenage boyfriend Miguel (Ryle Santiago) were too dumb to use condoms, the most easily available contraceptive device, or even to practice natural contraception. For the last 45 years, exclusive Catholic girls’ schools (in Manila at least) have taught students in the intermediate grades and high school, how to plot one’s menstrual cycle and how to use the Billings Method as part of health education. The honor student Emma never even considered researching on these in the school library (the film is set in 1990s) for her own protection until it’s too late. She herself was the only child of a teenage mother (Beauty Gonzales) who cares more about using her daughter to sell lip gloss than about preparing her so that she doesn’t make the same mistakes.
If this is the film’s way of conveying the message that becoming a teenage mother is plain stupid, then this mother and daughter tandem succeed. Geneticists have found that intelligence predominantly passes through the mother. When Emma goes to the barangay health center for a pregnancy test, her mom decides she’d rather stand outside preening for passers-by along the street, rather than support her daughter during her first OB-GYN exam. Pre-natal care never comes into the picture. Then the mother has the “brilliant” idea of subjecting her young daughter, already past her first trimester, to the dubious pampa-regla (abortifacient) herbal remedies available in Quiapo. The film ends with them on a bus bound for Manila.
Given the film’s worthy advocacy of the right to determine one’s own sexuality and to be left in peace, it is unfortunate that the opportunity was not taken to present a much needed, sobering view of the very real problems which it also depicts, of teen pregnancy, and unprotected sex — both matters which have definitely unfunny consequences. The predominantly youthful theater audience was audibly thrilled every time Billie and Emma made out — just as though they were any other hetero-normative love team. After the film, clumps of young people were overheard in the cinema’s lobby, excitedly wondering what it might be like to be gay. Also, weren’t both actors just so, so cute.
MTRCB Rating: R-13
By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento