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The Debut

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Debut

Starring: Dante Basco, Tirso Cruz III
Director: Gene Cajayon
Rated: NR
RunTime: 94 Minutes
Release Date: May 2000
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Joy Bisco, Gina Alajar, Bernadette Balagtas, Darion Basco, Dion Basco, Eddie Garcia

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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

I first discussed Filipino culture with my high school class in the early sixties. We had read Lederer and Burdick's "The Ugly American," whose title character is a U.S. diplomat in a foreign land who does not speak the language, and rather than mix with the people of that underdeveloped country socializes strictly with fellow Americans living in their cloistered colony. On the other hand a group of locals in Manila who had just met an American diplomat expected him to be yet another ugly American but instead, he spoke with them in Tagalog and at one point said, "I'm hungry. Where can I get some good adobe and pancit" (the Filipine national dish)? The locals were amazed and competed with one another to invite him to their homes for dinner.

In "The Debut," there is a reversal, if you will. The principal character, despite being a strikingly handsome young man with a real talent for illustrating comic books, might be called The Ugly Filipino-American" in that he is ashamed of his culture. In one of the first-ever Filipino-American films (this made for just $1.5 million), Dante Basco inhabits the role of Ben Mercado, a fellow who hangs out with an Anglo and a Mexican-American, both of whom are curious about Filipino culture. They do get a chance to see it, of course, but if they listened to Ben who repeatedly tries to escort them out of his house and out of the party his 18-year- old sister is enjoying they would miss out on a chance to see some down-home hospitality and some pretty cool dancing.

As in other coming-of-age stories, a parent is at odds with his adolescent child. Ben's dad Roland (Tirso Cruz) is a postman with a secret, revealed late into the story. He wants his kid to be better than he is and to become a doctor, hostile to the lad's intentions to go to Cal-Tech to be an artist (which dad considers a hobby unsuitable for the real world). This runs contrary to the theme in a film opening at about the same time, "Real Women Have Curves," about a mother who is a seamstress (played by the inimitable Lupe Ontiveros) who actually discourages her daughter from dreams of college and incredibly enough wants her to become a seamstress in a sweatshop, just like her.

"The Debut" is predictable but is no sit-com, thanks to some remarkably believable acting by Dante Basco in the principal role. Director Gene Cajayon takes us from the obligatory friction between father and son to the "good daughter" who insists that she is fine with a regular birthday party and does not need a pretentious deb introduction to society. Turning his nose up at his sister's party, Ben opts to chill with his two pals at a blast attended by an Anglo girl he thinks he likes. But oh, what he would have missed if he never returned to his roots. Cajayon shows us an array of dancing at the party of sister Rose (Bernadette Balagtas). There's a traditional one done with clacking bamboo sticks which is in a way like skipping rope in that the women have to synchronize their steps lest their feet get caught between the poles. The evening moves from a cha-cha Filipino style into some exciting break dancing done by a professional troupe, and ends up with Ben's successfully hitting on a Filipino girl but not before gangsta wannabe Augusto picks fights with him for taking away his woman and accuses him of being a sell-out, a coconut, for having no Filipino friends.

"The Debut," then, is a debut in many ways. First in that this is among the first Fil-Am films; second in that much of the scenery is taken up with a birthday party that simulates a low-budget debutante ball; third in that Ben is making his debut into Filipino society, finally accepting his racial and national heritage. The picture somehow lacks the charm of "Real Women Have Curves" but is heads-and-shoulders superior to the sit-comish but immensely popular "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." We wish Ben the best in art school: after all his invested all his savings in first- year tuition, turning down a scholarship at UCLA, and maybe he'll even find a field like animation that can show dad that you can what you want and still make a buck.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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