Saturday, August 10, 2019

Children of the River


Four childhood friends rely on role play and taking on family responsibilities to kill time in their little town. Pepsy (Junyka Santarin) tends to be tomboyish and bossy. Agol (Ricky Oriarte) is always hungry. Robin (Dave Francis) is insecure and wants to be popular with the girls. Elias (Noel Comia Jr) is the responsible son whose sexuality is awakened by the arrival of a young lad on vacation named Ted (Juancho Trivino). Their mothers count on superstition and faith healers who tend to baptize people with new names to cure their illnesses. At roughly the same time every day, they eagerly wait for a phone call from their respective fathers, whose whereabouts are never revealed. Together they navigate puberty and all the complications that come along as they transition into adolescence.

The poster makes the film look like some sort of child rebel narrative if you have no idea what the story is all about. I didn’t so I thought it would be full of violence and poverty porn yet again. The good thing is that while the theme does not veer away that much from the issue of conflict, it instead focuses on the coming of age angle leading you to emotionally invest on these kids before they serve you the main storyline. This makes the movie seem boring at first, but you eventually get to appreciate the mundane nature of it all.

There is an air of mystery because you are left to guess what the story is really all about. Only the mothers of the four kids are ever present. We don‘t get to see their fathers but they call at about the same time every day. Social media and watching television or listening to the radio is banned from the households. The kids are bored and they seem to be alluding to a more normal life prior to their current reality. It just makes you wonder, are we going to get a Shyamalan twist down the line?

No we don’t. the central theme is that of military families, which is already hinted on during the opening scenes. It is, however, quickly swept under the rug and alluded to in a very subtle manner that keeps you intrigued. The film then focuses on the four children and their subplots, a coming of age story with a rather grim backdrop of uncertainty. We always hear about military family narratives on the news, but all we ever get are statistics. Children of the River gives you the faces of that story.

Most films that tackle war tend to concentrate on the front lines. The explosions. The gunshots. The death toll. This story keeps the soldier in the background, almost never mentioned, and instead focuses on the family that gets left behind, which is another perspective that seldom gets the attention that it deserves. While the first half of the movie gets you thinking whether there is a bigger picture waiting in the long run and thus feels a bit dragging, it serves as a good preparation for the tearjerker scenes towards the end.

The stronger entries of last year’s Cinemalaya gave us compelling stories of the elderly questioning their decisions as they approach the twilight of their lives. This year, the baton seems to have been passed to the kids, with stories like Edward and Children of the River offering unassuming narratives that reconcile the naivety of a child’s worldview vis-à-vis the harsh truths of the world at large. If anything, it is a testament that sometimes all you need is a simple storyline to trigger realizations about life.

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