The Debut (2000)

[OK. So I’m cribbing Jette’s format for movie reviews. I had even considered jacking her logo and temporarily renaming my site “Celluloid Ears” in tribute. For now, I opt to be an amateur and imitate, rather than be a genius and steal.]

It’s usually not a good sign when the story of how a movie gets made and distributed is more interesting than the movie itself.

In the case of The Debut, that story is so extraordinary, it could be a documentary in and of itself.

Pitched as the very first film to deal with the Filipino-American experience, The Debut managed to snag stars of the Filipino cinema — Eddie Garcia, Tirso Cruz — and won various awards at a few film festivals, including the Hawaiʻi International Film Festival where it won Best of Festival. But no distributor would touch it.

So director Gene Cajayon and a team of volunteers targeted cities with a Filipino community of 20,000 or more, rented theaters and screened the film themselves. In San Francisco and Virginia Beach, The Debut was the top-grossing movie in those market.

The Debut screened in Houston, but word of it didn’t seem to reach Austin. I had read about it in aMagazine, and I would have traveled to Houston to see it. Austin doesn’t have a Filipino community of 20,000. If my experience is any indication, it doesn’t even have a Filipino community of 5.

It’s the Little Movie That Could.

But is it any good?

The Debut does have its shortcomings, and in many ways, it screams “no budget”. Dante Basco is a fine looking guy, but for some reason, I thought his voice was deeper. (You may remember Dante as “Rufio” in Steven Spielberg’s Hook.) Although he has some acting experience, his performance still seemed really green in this film.

The storyline can get predictable. Augusto’s conspiracy spiel in the souped-up car scene feels forced, and its easy to spot the politically correct plot device with the two token white friends a mile away.

Joy Bisco’s portrayal of love interest Annabelle could come across as grating, but from my perspective — if you don’t already know, I’m Filipino-American — she sounds pretty authentic. (A round about way of saying, yes, people really do talk like that.)

Despite these shortcomings, the film does an incredible job capturing the voice of the so-called “Filipino-American experience”. The righteous indignation of the older generation, the conscripted Black mannerisims of Fil-Am youth — if you grew up around it, you can recognize it. If you didn’t, well, welcome to my world!

The Debut, however, more than makes up for its shortcomings in the cross-generational conflict between father and son.

Basco’s character, Ben Mercado, wants to go to art school to become a cartoonist. His father Roland, played by Garza, refuses to let his son’s dreams get in the way of practical matters. Roland, however, doesn’t have the greatest relationship with his own father, Carlos, and it’s the way these relationships play out that more than compensate for other parts of the plot.

Or maybe I’m just projecting. I majored in music in college, even though I work as a web developer. I like to blame my internal Asian parent for my current career direction.

Or maybe my experience is just mainstream for my ethnic culture. Filipino parents, especially working class parents, want their children to do better than themselves. And boy, do they love reminding you about the kinds of sacrifices they make to open those opportunities up.

The Debut may speak to the choir, but for folks who have no perception of what it means to be a Filipino in America, this film is at the very least educational.